By Noah Alcala Bach
Originally appeared in the Texas Tribune
A new state law increases what SNAP applicants’ vehicles can be worth before they’re disqualified for federal food assistance. But most states don’t take car values into consideration at all.
Mercedes Bristol spent a recent Friday morning in her suburban San Antonio home sending emails, combing hair, answering calls and doing laundry for her grandson.
She was tending both to her work as head of the nonprofit Texas Grandparents Raising Grandchildren and getting her youngest grandson Paul Chavez ready for a mariachi concert in the afternoon.
Bristol also had reason to celebrate the end of the work week: Days earlier, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law a bill that will enable thousands more Texans to qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that provides financial assistance, commonly referred to as food stamps. Bristol and TXGRG, which helps other grandparents tasked with raising their grandkids, spent months trying to get House Bill 1287 passed in this year’s regular legislative session.
Although SNAP is a federal program that allows families access to food stamps, each state can set different requirements for eligibility. Texas looks at a household’s income but also factors in the value of a household’s cars, known as the vehicle asset test.
The current SNAP policy in Texas — which was set in 2001 — disqualified applicants whose primary vehicle was valued at $15,000 or more and had additional vehicles valued at $4,650 or more.
“When I got my five grandkids, I went to apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families,” Bristol said. “I was denied because my car was over the income limit. I had no beds, no clothes, I had to run out and get two car seats.”
According to Feeding Texas, a nonprofit food bank network that lobbied for HB 1287, more than 54,000 Texas SNAP applicants were rejected in 2022 due to the value of their vehicles. But some of those families will qualify in September if their primary vehicle is valued under $22,500 and any additional vehicles are valued under $8,700.
HB 1287 was a one-time adjustment due to the rise in car prices and food costs from recent and persistent inflation. Still, Texas is one of only 10 states that still has a vehicle asset test to qualify for SNAP.
Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, is pleased to see the bill pass but also wishes Texas would do away with considering vehicle values altogether.
“When the real issue is, ‘What does this person need to feed their families?’ it’s just not an efficient policy. It’s not a productive policy.” Cole said. “I think that’s why the vast majority of states have said, ‘This isn’t something we’re going to factor in.’”
Bristol said she was joined by 86 grandparents from around the state who went to Austin to testify in support of HB 1287 on April 4, exactly two weeks before the bill first passed through the House.
Bristol herself will not qualify — as she now earns more than the income threshold allows — and said many other grandparents won’t either.
“A lot of times when grandparents have retired or they’re working toward their retirement, we already have our cars, pensions, we have our things and then we get our grandchildren,” Bristol said. “They don’t come with any income. They don’t come with any benefits. They don’t come with anything. Sometimes without even clothes.”
But she still sees victory in the bill’s passage.
“It’s a little step,” Bristol said. “It will help some grandparents. And I think every win is a win, whether it’s small or big. But we have a lot of work to do to be able to take care of these children.”
Hope and criticism
Jennifer Washington, a mother of three who lives in Hutto, was previously denied SNAP benefits because the values of her family’s vehicles — a 2014 Nissan Titan and a 2018 Mazda CX-5 — were over the current limit. But she hopes they’ll qualify under the new threshold.
“I don’t want to say it’s life-changing, but it is kind of life-changing,” Washington said.
Washington works in accounting and her husband is a behavioral therapist who works with children who have autism. While Washington has gone to food banks and tried to use other resources to keep her family fed, the food she receives often isn’t sufficient for her twins, who both have gluten and soy allergies.
“This is a tool that will provide significant relief. We can now go to the grocery store and purchase the food necessary for our family,” Washington said. “It’s a relief for us to now be able to pay some other bills.”
Washington, however, is still critical of the vehicle asset test, noting that they’ve had to utilize their vehicles as collateral for title and payday loans. Washington added that selling their car to be able to qualify would have jeopardized their finances even more because they wouldn’t be able to commute to their jobs and drive their family around with just one vehicle.
Nikki Luna, a mother of three who lives in Troy, did not qualify for SNAP because of the value of her used and paid-off Kia Sorento that was purchased specifically to be able to fit her family comfortably.
“I’ve been getting very apprehensive every time I have to go to the grocery store with prices going up and I just have to cut back on certain things,” Luna said. “Going to the grocery shouldn’t be stressful.”
Luna said qualifying for SNAP will help her out tremendously, adding that because she lives in a rural town between Temple and Waco, food banks are sparse and often serve only residents living in the same city or county.
“Invisible foster care”
While TXGRG fought alongside Feeding Texas and various other organizations to get HB 1287 passed, Bristol feels politicians should be doing much more to help grandparents in need.
In Texas, an estimated 303,000 children live with their grandparents, according to AARP.
Gloria Adams, a 74-year-old grandmother who lives with her five grandchildren in San Antonio, also works for TXGRG. Her desk is in the family home’s main room, which also serves as a bedroom for her oldest granddaughter, Kiana Battle.
Kiana and her brother Andre Battle are the two oldest grandchildren she’s raised with her late husband Ronald Adams. Gloria Adams said that despite a terminal cancer diagnosis, her husband held on to watch Kiana graduate high school and died two weeks after she walked the stage.
But that left her alone with grandchildren to raise.
Kiana and Andre both work full time but have stayed in the home to help her raise their younger siblings and offer financial support. Adams said she still finds herself struggling to keep up financially, even with the help, spending over $600 on groceries a week and paying hefty utility bills since six people are living in the house.
Because the family’s primary car is over the new SNAP limit in Texas, they still wouldn’t qualify for benefits.
“If I could qualify, then I would not have to live from paycheck to paycheck. If I got some food stamps I would be able to save some money, a little bit of money here and there,” Adams said.
Adams is pleased that HB 1287 has passed but is frustrated it wouldn’t impact many other grandparents in her situation.
“It’s heartbreaking, it’s really heartbreaking. You work on this thinking that it will be some benefit to all of the grandparents and it’s not,” Adams said. “I’m not going to say it’s not helping anybody, it will help some, but for as many grandparents as there are in the system it won’t help enough.”
Bristol echoes this, calling grandparents who raise their grandchildren without more support from the state the “invisible foster care” system.
In Texas, grandparents who take custody of grandkids caught up in the foster care system frequently don’t get paid as much as strangers who serve as foster parents. Lawmakers this year authored bills to fix that, but the legislation didn’t gain enough traction to become law.
In the state budget, though, lawmakers wrote a provision that provides a pathway for relative caregivers to get more payments — if a program the Biden administration has proposed comes to fruition and federal matching funds become available.
Adams said that while she is grateful to be able to work with senators and House members — and even to be able to speak on the issue at the national level — politicians need to do more. And grandparents can’t give up.
“I don’t want this movement to die out. A lot of grandparents say, ‘It doesn’t do anybody any good, nobody’s listening,’ and I just want to tell them that there are people listening,” Bristol said. “It’s just going to take persistence, because if we die out, then it was just a moment, but we keep persisting, there is going to be change.”