On its website, the U.S. Department of Agriculture provides a map showing 11 states with levels of “food insecurity” that exceed the national average.
These states are clustered in the Deep South and Appalachia, and Missouri is not among them. Our level of food insecurity — a bureaucratic way of referring to hunger — is closer to the national average of 12 percent. Mississippi, for the sake of comparison, is at 17 percent.
It’s interesting because Missouri has taken a harder line than other states on access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as food stamps. This includes the latest political skirmish targeting a loophole that allows some recipients to bypass income eligibility rules for food stamps.
The Trump Administration seeks to eliminate a practice known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which automatically grants food stamp access to a person who already receives another form of public assistance, mainly welfare benefits under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.
A report from the U.S. Agriculture Department’s inspector general found that this auto-eligibility was abused, with some people enrolled in the food stamp program just by virtue of being given a TANF brochure.
This abuse probably wasn’t widespread, but it seems to go against the spirit of providing food assistance to those who meet the criteria and need it the most. The Trump Administration wants to limit cross qualification to those who receive “ongoing” or “substantial” welfare benefits, defined as benefits worth $50 a month for six months.
About 3 million people would lose benefits, leading to howls of protest about the cruelty of this proposal. Is it? Or is it just a natural reaction to any changes involving public benefits, when those changes come from this administration?
Lost in the debate is this reality: Missouri is one of seven or eight states that don’t allow auto-eligibility, according to state officials in Jefferson City. The changes will have little impact here.
Yet our food insecurity numbers are middling, better than some and worse than others. This leads us to believe that, instead of fighting over what seems like common sense reforms affecting a relatively small number, policy makers would be better served trying to address a bigger issue.
More than 40 million Americans are receiving food stamp assistance, up from 28 million a decade ago. Despite low unemployment and a strong economy, food insecurity and the need for food stamps remain stubbornly high.
That’s a problem that persists with or without auto enrollment.