House Bill 581 Would Cut Food Assistance for Thousands of Florida Families

By eliminating categorical eligibility, House Bill (HB) 581 would cut food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for more than 200,000 struggling children and families. Florida’s economic recovery has been uneven: more than 3 million Floridians are living in poverty, a figure that does not include those families living above the poverty level but still struggling to get by. By eliminating categorical eligibility, the state is taking a huge step backward at the expense of families who rely on SNAP as their lifeline.

Currently, SNAP supports millions of struggling families with children, seniors and people with disabilities through federally-funded food assistance. Legislative changes to eligibility determinations will only increase administrative program costs while hurting vulnerable Florida residents.

Esubalew Dadi
March 2017

The Florida Legislature is considering HB 581[1], which would cut federal food assistance for thousands of Floridians and eliminate Florida’s ability to expand categorical eligibility in the SNAP program.

Why Is SNAP Important?

Enrollment in SNAP has been declining since 2015 as the economy has improved[2]; however, as the cost of living continues to rise, one in six Floridians still use SNAP — a federal food and nutrition assistance program — to buy the food they need to survive and feed their families.

There were more than 200,000 families with children living in deep poverty in Florida in 2015 (those at less than half of the poverty level – less than $12,000 for a family of four), based on an analysis of U.S Census Bureau data.[3]

The program not only helps families who have no income, but also working families who are struggling to make ends meet. Of the 1.7 million Florida households currently participating in SNAP, 29 percent, more than 500,000, are working families.[4]

What Is Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility in SNAP?

Federal law allows states to expand SNAP’s reach to help hard working, low-income families and seniors who cannot afford to put food on the table through optional broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE).[5] Florida adopted BBCE in 2010[6] which allows access to SNAP food assistance in the circumstances outlined below.

  • Households that earn just above the SNAP threshold, but still don’t earn enough disposable income (net income after deductions) are eligible under the BBCE. This is possible because the BBCE raises the gross income limit from 130 percent of the federal poverty level (FPL) to 200 percent. The FPL for a family of four is $24,250. Despite this increase, virtually all benefits go to households with net incomes below 100 percent of the FPL.
  • Households with assets that exceed $2,250 (or $3,000 for households with older adults and people with disabilities)[7] are also eligible under BBCE. In other words, under categorical eligibility there is no cap on assets.

More than 40 states have exercised this option, broadening SNAP eligibility to help more people who need it.  States have also used BBCE to align SNAP rules with other programs to simplify operations and reduce administrative costs.[8]

Who Uses SNAP Through Categorical Eligibility?

Thanks to categorical eligibility, the state can help more working families, seniors and people with disabilities, as outlined below, meet their basic food needs:

  • Families who have combined child care and rent costs that exceed half of their wages, leaving them without enough money to put food on the table.
  • Seniors and people with disabilities who live on fixed incomes and have modest savings set aside for emergencies.
  • Unemployed individuals facing hardship who may still have modest savings or a car to help them look for work.

Important Facts about Categorical Eligibility

Nationwide, categorical eligibility accounts for just 2 percent of SNAP costs – so allowing states to use this option has not driven caseloads “out of control,” as some claim, or driven up program costs unreasonably.[9]

Additionally, as the economy improves, SNAP caseloads decline.  Repealing our state’s ability to expand eligibility will only serve to hurt working families who are trying to get on their feet and seniors who struggle to get by.

Categorical eligibility also does not result in automatic enrollment of families, as some claim. Every household must still apply through the rigorous, regular application process.

What is at Stake in HB 581?

Seeking to eliminate or restrict the BBCE option would cut food assistance for thousands of low-income Floridians who are currently relying on SNAP as the main source of food and nutrition for themselves and their families. It would also mean that children from low-income families who qualify for SNAP under BBCE could no longer receive free school lunches and breakfasts. Children in households that receive SNAP are automatically eligible for free school meals; however, children in families that are near-poor in terms of their gross incomes, and whose disposable incomes are below the poverty line, would lose free school meals.

Imposing onerous administrative procedures would increase administrative costs.

HB 581 would strip the state of its flexibility in administering the SNAP program and impose onerous administrative procedures, requiring the state to change its SNAP eligibility rules and the ACCESS system (Florida’s public benefit delivery system) and retrain staff. This would reduce efficiency and needlessly increase workload and administrative costs.

BBCE policies benefit the state by simplifying the eligibility determination process and creating consistency in income and resource limits across programs. These policies, in turn, can save resources, improve productivity and help staff focus more time on performing essential program activities.[10]

Categorical eligibility does not significantly expand eligibility.  In 2011, only 2 percent of SNAP households had monthly disposable income above 100 percent of the poverty line.  In other words, with the categorical eligibility option in place, 98 percent of all SNAP households have disposable income that leaves them in poverty.

Ending categorical eligibility would penalize families and seniors for saving modest amounts.  Consider the following:

  • Building assets helps low-income families invest in their future and avert a financial crisis that could push them deeper into poverty (which means a greater reliance on government) or homelessness.  If the categorical eligibility option is restricted, states would have to terminate benefits to poor families participating in SNAP who have managed to save as little as $2,250.
  • Putting in place a restrictive and extremely low asset test would harm seniors and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes who have modest savings set aside for emergencies.
  • Eliminating the BBCE would result in some working households losing benefits merely because they own a modest car (which, in many cases, is how they get to work).

Restricting or Eliminating BBCE Would Put Additional Pressure on Local Nonprofits

Cutting access to critical food assistance for struggling Floridians will strain the resources of local non-profits and private charities. These groups are already dealing with the fallout from the return of the SNAP time limit for childless adults, a weakened unemployment program and uneven economic recovery. They will be unable to manage the spike in demand for their services as public food assistance is terminated or restricted.

It is imperative that Florida’s lawmakers protect policies and programs that ensure widespread economic prosperity and opportunity for all Floridians. All residents benefit when children, families and seniors have the support necessary to find success.

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[1] Florida House of Representatives. House Bill 581.

[2] Florida house of Representatives. 2017. Children, Families and Seniors Subcommittee. p. 12

[3] Data provided by Florida KIDS COUNT analysis of U.S Census Bureau Data, American Community Survey 1 Year Estimates, Tables B17026 and B17024. March, 2017.

[4] Ibid, p. 11

[5] Ibid.

[6] Supra at 1, p. 12

[7] ibid, p. 4

[8] Rosenbaum, Dorothy et al. 2013. Cuts Contained in SNAP Bill Coming to the House Floor Would Affect Millions of Low-Income Americans.  pp. 9-10 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

[9] Special data request to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP)

[10] United States Department of Agriculture. 2009. Improving Access to SNAP through Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility. (Memo)