LINCOLN — A Trump administration proposal to tighten food stamp benefits could make it harder for Nebraska families to get food assistance.

About 3.1 million people nationwide would lose benefits under the proposal announced Tuesday. It is not clear how many Nebraskans would be among that number.

But the proposal would eliminate benefits for families, seniors and people with disabilities who have more than a few thousand dollars of savings.

“The proposed rule would be harmful for Nebraskans and households across our nation,” said James Goddard, economic justice program director at Nebraska Appleseed.

Karen Heng of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services said officials are reviewing the proposed regulation change. They plan to wrap up their assessment of the impact on Nebraska in time to comment on the proposed rule.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the rule would close “a loophole” that enables people receiving only minimal benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to be eligible automatically for food stamps without undergoing further checks on their income or assets.

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement.

The proposed rule is the latest in the Trump administration’s efforts to cut back on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, the official name of the food stamp program. It previously proposed to tighten work requirements for those who receive federal food assistance.

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Under current law, states may automatically make people eligible for food stamps if they meet income, asset and other requirements for TANF. The provision, called “expanded categorical eligibility,” is used by 43 states, including Nebraska and Iowa.

The USDA said the policy has resulted in people receiving food stamps who don’t need them and wouldn’t qualify under regular program rules. It says states have expanded that to include households that it says “barely participate” in TANF.

The new proposal would have greater effect in Iowa, which allows TANF households to qualify for food stamps with gross incomes up to 160% of the federal poverty level, or $33,248 for a family of three. The state also sets no limits on assets.

Nebraska limits TANF households to 130% of the poverty level, or $27,014 for a family of three, the same limit that applies to all others seeking food stamps.

But Nebraska uses a higher asset threshold than the new proposal would allow, Goddard said. The state allows people to have up to $25,000 in savings, instead of a limit of $3,500 for elderly and disabled people and a $2,250 limit for families with children. Goddard said the higher asset limit allows households to prepare for unexpected expenses and get ahead.

He also said the proposed regulation would make it difficult for Nebraska to address the “cliff effect,” under which a small raise or a new job can cause people to lose their food aid.

Legislative Bill 255, introduced by State Sen. John McCollister of Omaha, seeks to ease that transition by raising the income limit to 140% of the poverty level. The bill remains in committee.

The USDA estimates that 1.7 million households — 3.1 million people — “will not otherwise meet SNAP’s income and asset eligibility prerequisites under the proposed rule.” That would result in a net savings of about $9.4 billion over five years. About 36 million people participated in SNAP in April 2019, down from more than 38 million a year earlier.

An unpublished version of the proposed rule acknowledges the impact, saying it “may also negatively impact food security and reduce the savings rates among those individuals who do not meet the income and resource eligibility requirements for SNAP or the substantial and ongoing requirements for expanded categorical eligibility.”

Congress has rejected previous attempts to change the expanded automatic eligibility provisions, most recently during the farm bill debate in 2018.

The rule, expected to be published in the Federal Register on Wednesday, is open for public comment for 60 days.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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