OP-ED: No family should go hungry in Texas

No family or child in the greatest state should go to bed hungry, and with September being National Hunger Action Month, there is no better time to raise awareness of the rising number of Texans struggling with food insecurity. 

Before the pandemic, hunger already plagued thousands of Texas families and children. The COVID-19 pandemic made matters worse. Now, with the pandemic behind us, inflation and gas prices along with stagnant wages, Texas families are increasingly forced to make impossible choices between food and other basic needs. 

Nearly 13% of Texas households –– 4 million Texans –– face food insecurity. In rural communities, like those in the Big Bend and Trans-Pecos region, food-insecurity rates are almost double the state average. According to Feeding Texas, “Rural families often face higher rates of hunger because of the unique challenges of living remotely. These challenges include poor geographic access to healthy food, limited or unreliable job opportunities, and high rates of un- and under-employment. Addressing hunger in rural areas is a unique challenge.”

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) makes it possible for many struggling Texans to buy food to feed themselves and their families despite low wages. Yet a growing number of families are being denied help because Texas is one of the few states where owning a vehicle can disqualify you from receiving food assistance. Imagine a single parent with multiple kids who needs that vehicle to work two or three jobs to make ends meet. Imagine that ranchhand who works before sun-up to after sun-down and needs his truck to do his job to barely make ends meet. These countless scenarios are heartbreaking and these families need help.

Although SNAP is a federal program, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) gives states the flexibility on determining eligibility. Established in 2001, Texas rules cap the maximum value of a vehicle at $15,000 for the first vehicle and $4,650 for any additional vehicle in the household to qualify for SNAP benefits. Owning a vehicle worth more than those limits disqualifies hungry Texas families from SNAP benefits –– even if you have lost your job and have no way to pay for food. 

These vehicle valuation limits, set 20 years ago, are outdated and have lost touch with reality. If the limits were adjusted to reflect the current value of vehicles today adjusted for inflation, the maximum value of the first vehicle would increase to $25,000 and $7,800 for an additional vehicle in the household. Because the vehicle asset test has not been updated in 20 years and has not kept up with inflation, Texans that would otherwise be eligible for SNAP are increasingly facing food insecurity. 

To make matters worse, a dramatic 40% average increase in the values of used cars has recently led to something we have never seen before; instead of depreciating, used cars appreciated in value in the past year. As a result, families that have previously been approved for SNAP and go to renew their benefits are having their cases suddenly rejected because their used cars are worth more today than they were just one year ago. Thousands of eligible Texas families are being disqualified from basic food assistance because of an outdated vehicle asset test mandated by the state. That’s why I filed Senate Bill 1914 last legislative session. The bill would have modernized the SNAP vehicle asset test by adjusting for inflation. Unfortunately, the bill did not make it across the finish line before session ended. 

Food insecurity and Texas’ vehicle asset tests disproportionately affect children, seniors, rural families, and people of color the most. According to Feeding Texas, 20% of children, 11% of households with seniors, 25% of African Americans, and 18% of Latinos are facing hunger in Texas. 

Updating Texas’ SNAP vehicle asset test is not a handout, it is a hand-up for thousands of Texas families facing food insecurity who shouldn’t be punished for having the vehicles they need to lift themselves out of poverty and welfare. Because Texas’ SNAP vehicle asset test is not a federal requirement or in state statute, Texas can take steps now to help hungry Texans at no cost to the state. Texas should eliminate the SNAP vehicle asset test now, or at the very minimum, adjust the outdated vehicle limits to reflect today’s inflation and distorted used vehicle market. If Texas fails to take action in the interim, I will continue the fight against hunger by refiling S.B. 1914 next session.