Child and education advocacy organizations are warning that a Trump administration plan to change how the federal poverty line is calculated could have negative and far-reaching effects on children in low-income families.
Losing eligibility for subsidized and free school breakfast and lunch programs is just one way students could feel the impact of using a different mechanism for determining the cost of goods and services for a family’s basic needs. The plan would figure those costs at a lower rate, meaning it would be harder for a family to fit the definition of poor.
“[School Nutrition Association] is very concerned that this proposed change will result in children going hungry during the school day,” the association, which represents those who run school nutrition programs, wrote in a letter to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) as part of a public comment period that ended last week. “Eligibility criteria for free and reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs would be changed and students who currently rely on the benefits of these programs would go hungry.”
In the letter to OMB Chief Statistician Nancy Potok, SNA President Gay Anderson and CEO Patricia Montague wrote that lowering eligibility levels would also result in higher unpaid meal debt, "threatening financial sustainability of school nutrition programs" and "negatively impacting education funding overall."
Specifically, the government would use what is called the “chained” or “chain-linked” Consumer Price Index (CPI) instead of the traditional CPI to set poverty thresholds. Over time, low-income families that currently receive benefits such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program would no longer be eligible for those programs, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP).
Trump, however, is not the first president to call for such an adjustment. President Barack Obama, urged by Republicans in Congress, used the measure when preparing his fiscal year 2014 budget in order to save $1 trillion in spending on government programs. But he dropped the plan when it was portrayed as an attack on senior citizens because it would lower Social Security benefits.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that a switch to the chained CPI would save the government about $203 billion through 2028.
Defining 'families out of poverty'
The chained CPI assumes that consumers adjust their spending habits to buy less expensive goods when prices increase. Experts say, however, that even if families are thrifty shoppers, they are still left with fixed costs, such as rent and child care, that they can’t change.
CBPP estimates that within 10 years, 100,000 school-age children would lose access to reduced-price meals, and another 100,000 would shift from free to reduced-price meals. Using chained CPI would also likely affect the number of schools currently taking advantage of the National School Lunch Program's Community Eligibility Provision (CEP), which allows them to serve free meals to all students. Unless schools have a significant percentage of students eligible for reimbursable meals, it doesn't make financial sense for them them to use CEP.
In addition, 300,000 children would lose comprehensive health coverage through Medicaid or the Children’s Health Insurance Program, according to CBPP.
“The proposal is basically to make the poverty line less responsive to changes in the prices of goods and services,” said Thurston Domina, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied how school districts measure student poverty. “If there’s any inflation at all, such a proposal will mean that families will need to be poorer to be classified as in poverty. It’s basically an effort to define families out of poverty without improving their financial situation in any way.”
Eligibility for Head Start and Early Head Start, which together serve more than 1 million children from birth to age 5, would also be affected if the change is implemented.
"The poverty line is antiquated and already significantly below what is needed to raise a family — especially in communities where minimum wages and/or general costs of living have substantially increased," Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, wrote in the organization's response to Potok. "Further, it does not include costs that many families with low-income face, such as child care and access to mobile phones or the internet, that are a virtual requirement for a child to be successful in school and in life."
And in California, First 5 organizations, which focus on health and education programs for young children, also issued a statement on the proposal.
"Moving the line in the sand labeled 'poverty' doesn't change the reality on the ground for kids," Moira Kenney, executive director of First 5 Association of California, which represents 58 local First 5 county commissions, said in the statement. "Little kids and their families are already struggling, especially in California, where housing, child care, food and other basic living costs are among the highest in the nation."