The U.S. Department of Agriculture released the number this week after having initially said the rule change would affect far fewer children.
In the past year, the administration has proposed a series of new regulations that would reduce enrollment and cut benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The proposed cuts are a core part of the administration’s anti-welfare agenda, which has hummed along in the background as the president’s scandals and corruption dominate headlines.
One proposal would reduce states’ flexibility in setting eligibility standards, potentially trimming caseloads by 3 million, or about 9% of total projected enrollment in 2020.
The National School Lunch Program serves more than 30 million kids, including 22 million who qualify for free or reduced-price meals if their parents have low incomes. A subset of those students are automatically certified for free meals if their parents receive SNAP benefits; it’s those kids who could lose automatic enrollment in free or discounted school lunches under the Trump proposal.
The vast majority of students who would lose automatic certification would still be eligible for free or reduced meals, but they would have to apply instead of being automatically signed up when their school crosschecks federal SNAP enrollment data. The USDA said only 4% of the affected kids would lose eligibility for free or discounted lunch, but has acknowledged that some of those who are eligible will not go through the application process.
Democrats are not impressed.
“Even for those who remain eligible, forcing low-income families to navigate the burdensome paperwork will inevitably lead to eligible children losing access to a critical source of daily nutrition,” said Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Va.).
When the Trump administration originally released the rule in July, USDA officials told reporters the proposal would affect 265,000 schoolchildren. This week, the USDA said in a regulatory filing that closer to 982,000 kids would be affected.
“The analysis more than doubles the figures USDA first estimated, and now shows almost a million students will either lose their free school meals entirely, or have to jump through additional bureaucratic hoops to re-certify their eligibility,” Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) said in a press release.
At a hearing on Thursday, USDA official Brandon Lipps suggested that the administration had to cut benefits because too many undeserving people are gaming the system.
“For far too long, negative press has weakened Americans’ confidence in important programs you have charged us with administering,” Lipps said, pointing to the tale of a millionaire who’d signed up for benefits in Minnesota just to make a point about lax eligibility standards. (The man qualified because he had no income.)
Republicans themselves have made a strong effort to generate negative press about food benefits and to publicize the case of the wealthy retiree known as the “Minnesota Millionaire.” They invited him to a hearing in June, cited his story when they put out the regulation in July, and did so again this week. Republicans in the Minnesota legislature trumpeted his case in 2018.
“Because one person scammed the system we’re supposed to punish hungry kids?” Fudge asked. “It is just ridiculous and I’m sick of hearing it.”