Rule Two: Eliminating Categorical Eligibility

Eligibility requirements for SNAP, like income and asset limits, are determined on a federal level. Under a policy called “Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility,” households that receive any kind of benefit from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program or a state “maintenance of effort,” which provide cash assistance and support services, are automatically “categorically eligible” for SNAP. That gives states flexibility to set higher gross income limits and allow for slightly higher levels of personal savings through those other programs, so that low-income households with high housing or child care expenses can receive the nutrition assistance they need as well. Those households must still submit an application and prove that they fulfill other SNAP eligibility rules (like a net income test and documentation requirements).

This rule ensures flexibility for states to help families avoid a drastic change in their benefits after a modest increase in their wages or savings, and creates streamlined processes for households to receive other benefits — for example, children who qualify for SNAP through Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility are also made automatically eligible for free school meals.

However, in July of 2019, the USDA proposed a change to Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility that would limit which TANF benefits make a household “categorically eligible” for SNAP — to qualify, a household would need to receive “substantial and ongoing” TANF benefits, defined as worth at least $50 for 6 months or longer.

The proposal would cut SNAP by $10.5 billion over five years and eliminate benefits for 3.1 million people. If the USDA’s proposed changes were implemented, more than a million children are at risk of losing SNAP benefits and almost a million would lose access to free school meals.

Although the comment period for the proposed rule has closed, the final rule has not been released or implemented. In late April, 22 state Attorneys General sent a letter to the USDA asking to suspend the rulemaking process around changes to BBCE, but no suspension has been announced yet.