WASHINGTON — Proposed changes in federal eligibility rules for the nation's food stamp program may disqualify more than 12,000 Minnesotans from receiving the food purchasing assistance.

The new proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) targets liberalized food stamp eligibility programs such as the one in Minnesota. The proposal has raised the ire of state officials, private food philanthropies and food stamp recipients who believe it will keep food from the hungry, especially seniors and children.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said he was merely closing a "loophole" to prevent abuse of a "critical safety net system."

His announcement of the new rules is the latest volley in a battle over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, that erupted in negotiations for the country's latest five-year farm bill. In the legislative debate, Republicans tried to place work restrictions on certain food stamp recipients but eventually failed.

The USDA proposal was inspired by a Minnesota man with more than $1 million in real estate and other fixed assets. He gamed the state's food stamp system in 2018 to prove how easy it was to abuse, then donated his food stamps to charity.

In Minnesota, some people making less than 165% of the federal poverty standard (less than $1,670 per month for an individual, less than $3,452 for a family of four) may qualify for SNAP without having the value of their other assets tested simply by downloading a brochure from a state website and submitting it with their applications.

The new federal rule sets up multiple administrative roadblocks to such expanded eligibility efforts. USDA predicts that nationwide about 3.1 million people — roughly 9% of recipients — would no longer qualify for food stamps under the new rules.

Households making more than the federal food stamp income limit — 130% of the federal poverty standard — would be disqualified. So would people who don't meet federal non-income asset tests — $2,250 for households without an elderly or disabled member and $3,500 for households with an elderly or disabled member.

"Categorical eligibility" that avoids asset tests would be allowed only for those who have received specific kinds of benefits under another federal program, the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), for six months. TANF "assists families with children when the parents or other responsible relatives cannot provide for the family's basic needs," according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

USDA's proposal does not require congressional approval, but it must go through a monthslong review process before taking effect.

In Minnesota, 416,000 people collected an average of $110 per month in food stamps during fiscal year 2018. State officials are still calculating the exact number of recipients who might be disqualified by the new USDA rules regarding TANF and asset tests. They believe at least 12,000 food stamp recipients will be kicked off because they are from households making more than 130% of poverty level. The Minnesota Department of Human Services says "broad-based eligibility" mostly helps "seniors, low-wage working parents, and people with disabilities."

So the USDA proposal drew a swift rebuke from a children and family services commissioner, private hunger-prevention groups and SNAP recipients. Food stamp fraud exists, they acknowledged, but millionaires scamming the eligibility process is virtually nonexistent.

"That is not our experience," said Allison O'Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland. "We serve working families who are trying to make ends meet. Many families are a car repair or prescription drug bill away from needing help."

O'Toole spoke for a coalition of six private organizations working to feed the hungry in Minnesota.

Perdue's policies, she said, "would literally take food off the tables of working families."

Besides income limits, people may qualify for food stamps if they receive Social Security disability, general assistance or subsidized child-care, or if they participate in a diversionary work program. But often, "the only [support] program the working poor are eligible for is food stamps," said SNAP recipient Vicki Parchman.

The 61-year-old Brooklyn Park resident said if she had had to wait six months when she first needed help, she would have been forced to seek handouts from food shelves. Parchman believes the asset tests and waiting period envisioned in the new USDA proposal are "ridiculous."

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota said the proposed rules make "changes that were overwhelmingly rejected on a bipartisan basis by the Senate during the amendment process for the 2018 Farm Bill."

Democratic Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota took over as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee when Democrats gained a majority in 2018. He sees the new USDA proposal as an extension of the earlier fight to limit food stamps.

Peterson said he supports a single national income limit that would require congressional approval. But he predicted that the proposed rules would spur lawsuits by advocates for those losing access to food that could drag on for years. The proposal, he said, is "a meat ax approach that has [USDA] getting sued and [the rule] will never get done."

Minnesota Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn, also a member of the House Agriculture Committee, supports the new rules as part of necessary welfare reform. "We do not want to see anyone, especially children, go hungry, which is why I support the Farm Bill and its nutrition provisions," Hagedorn said in a statement to the Star Tribune. "But food stamp benefits must be directed to people truly in need."

The country must be sure that the cure is not worse than the problem, Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota cautioned. "There are bad actors who abuse the system, and even though there are very few, we need to do a better job of making sure they can't get help if they don't need it," Smith said. "But ultimately, this decision means that thousands of Minnesota kids are at risk of going hungry."

Minnesota is among 38 states in the nation that do not impose an asset test for SNAP beyond income. The policies were developed as a way to quickly get SNAP benefits to those in need.

"In some cases, families may have substantial assets and very little income. Farmers may be one example," a human services spokeswoman said.

Children and Family Services Assistant Commissioner Nikki Farago praised the state's approach.

"Broad-based categorical eligibility has helped Minnesota streamline its SNAP program and provide benefits to more low-income households," she said in a statement."

Historically, SNAP has served well over 100,000 children a year in Minnesota, according to the latest state figures. Now 63, Paula Juaire raised two sons as a single parent in St. Paul. She worked at the Fisher Nut Co. but says she made so little that she needed food stamps to feed her children. Juaire called SNAP "a tremendous help."

She predicted that Perdue's proposed six-month welfare rule would not be helpful.

"I lost my job in '94," Juaire said. "When I applied for welfare, they didn't want to help me out because of income from the previous year. I don't like the idea of people having to wait six months. They still need to eat."

Staff writer Chris Serres contributed to this report. Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432