State of the Union

PolitiFact: Trump's State of the Union Claim about Welfare, Food Stamp Declines is Off

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In his third State of the Union address, President Trump claimed that since he took office: "7 million Americans have come off of food stamps and 10 million have been lifted off of welfare."

There is some data to back him up when it comes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, but our analysis found that the data is flawed. In addition, we could not substantiate his claim that 10 million people have been lifted from welfare.

SNAP figures are trending downward, but data is incomplete 

There are around 7 million fewer Americans participating in SNAP, sometimes called food stamps, than when Trump entered the White House, according to figures from the Department of Agriculture. The program provides "nutritional assistance" to people with low incomes or disabilities.

That’s what the data shows, but there are some issues. The real number is likely a bit lower due to two things: A data reporting problem in North Carolina and a reporting discrepancy from the 2018-19 government shutdown. SNAP participation numbers by state show there are no North Carolina recipients being accounted for from October 2017 through all of 2019, dragging down the national average of recipients. (In 2018, the News and Observer reported that North Carolina's food stamp numbers were too good to be true.) 

During the winter 2019 government shutdown, the federal government asked states to issue double the amount of SNAP benefits in January so enrollees would not miss their  February benefits if the shutdown continued. (It lasted from Dec. 22, 2018, to Jan. 25, 2019.)

Because of this, numbers for January 2019 are consistent with the number of people receiving food stamps in prior months. But February 2019’s numbers show a huge drop, which also drags down the average. With all this being accounted for, the number of reductions may be closer to 6 million.

Also, SNAP participation was falling since before Trump took office, a trend that experts say is likely due to a growing economy. Participation in the program usually follows along with the official poverty rate, which has been falling since 2010.

Meanwhile, the administration finalized a rule in late 2019 that tightens guidelines on who can receive benefits and for how long. The changes are expected to move more "able-bodied" adults into the workforce, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a news release. The rule was projected to end benefits for about 700,000 people. 

Unclear where Trump derives his ‘welfare’ numbers

Trump’s claim that 10 million people were lifted "off of welfare" doesn’t add up. We didn’t hear back from the White House when we asked about this claim.

One key problem is that "welfare" is an imprecise term. Besides SNAP, we reviewed the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program and its Separate State Maintenance of Effort. Under TANF, the federal government provides a block grant to states, which use the funds to operate their own assistance programs.

When Trump took office in January 2017, there were about 3.68 million recipients of these programs combined. In June 2019, that number dropped by about 825,000 to 2.85 million. 

The Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy organization for low-income people, told us it’s hard to determine how Trump arrived at the 10 million number. 

Elizabeth Lower-Basch, director of the organization’s income and work supports team, said it couldn’t be the TANF caseloads, as those numbers are much too low. 

"It’s possible the administration could get to 10 million by combining reductions in TANF with reductions in the use of Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps), but we haven’t seen any published data that show this figure," Lower-Basch wrote in an email.

Most people think of "welfare" as a program for people who are not working, Lower-Basch said. In that respect, Medicaid, CHIP and SNAP don’t necessarily fit into that category as the vast majority of people who are getting these types of benefits are children, seniors, or working adults.

Our ruling

Trump said, "Under my administration, 7 million Americans have come off of food stamps, and 10 million people have been lifted off of welfare."

Trump’s claim that 7 million Americans have come off food stamps since he took office isn’t too far off, although some discrepancies in reporting show slightly skewed data. The decline is also likely due to both the growing economy and the administration’s policy changes that have affected eligibility for some groups. 

But his broad welfare claim overshoots actual caseloads and appears to include programs that provide benefits to children and seniors as well as working adults. 

We rate this Half True. 

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