77,000 Illinois households could lose food stamps under proposed USDA changes

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

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A proposed change to the federal food stamp program could cause tens of thousands of Illinois residents to lose their benefits if they have too much money saved up.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking to tighten eligibility rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called SNAP, to achieve consistency among states and ensure benefits go to those who need them most. It estimates the changes would save $2.5 billion a year.

But advocates for the poor say tightened eligibility rules would mostly affect working families who struggle to make ends meet and elderly people with savings, and kick thousands of children off free school meal programs.

Here’s what is being proposed and the potential impact on Illinois, where some 1.8 million people receive food stamps.

How would eligibility be tightened?

USDA’s proposed rule change targets a process called categorical eligibility, which allows households to automatically qualify for SNAP if they already qualify for other welfare programs. In Illinois, those who receive SNAP through categorical eligibility can have annual gross earnings up to 165% of the federal poverty line or $35,194 for a family of three, as long as their expenses bring their net income to the poverty line, which is $21,330. Their savings and assets are not taken into account.

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But USDA says some states have broadened their categorical eligibility rules too much, and it wants to rein them in. As an example, USDA says some states allow people to be deemed categorically eligible for SNAP when they have only received a brochure about welfare programs.

To tighten the standards, USDA is seeking to limit automatic SNAP eligibility to households that receive welfare benefits valued at more than $50 a month for at least six months. Many Illinois residents who don’t get that level of benefits would lose categorical eligibility and be subject to regular federal income and asset limits.

The federal income limit for SNAP is 130% of the federal poverty line, which for a family of three totals gross earnings of $27,729 a year. The asset limit is no more than $3,500 in savings for households that include an elderly or disabled person, and no more than $2,250 for other households.

How many people would lose benefits?

The USDA says 3.1 million food stamp recipients nationwide, or about 8% of the total, would no longer be eligible for SNAP under the new rules.

Illinois officials were not able to provide local impact numbers. But according to 2016 USDA data, about 8.6% of Illinois households receiving food stamps would not meet the federal income or asset tests. As of April there were more than 900,000 SNAP households in Illinois, so if that rate has remained consistent more than 77,000 households in the state could lose benefits.

Who would fail the income or asset tests?

Elderly people and working families would be disproportionately affected. About 13.2 percent of SNAP households with an elderly person would lose benefits, as would 12.5 percent of households with earnings, according to the USDA.