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Policy Perspectives: SNAP Benefit Cuts to Affect Millions of Food-Insecure People
By Suzanne McDevitt, PhD
Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 1 P. 26

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture George Ervin “Sonny” Perdue, DVM, introduced rule changes to SNAP, the major food assistance program in the United States, by saying the changes “will save money and preserve the integrity of the program. SNAP should be a temporary safety net. That is why we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.”

However, according to Feeding America, that will result in 625 million meals that will be taken off the tables of hungry Americans within a year and a total of 1.1 billion meals within 10 years. Representative Marcia Fudge (D) Ohio told The New York Times that instead of “considering hungry individuals and their unique struggles and needs, the Department [of Agriculture] has chosen to paint them with the broadest brush, demonizing them as lazy and undeserving.” Feeding America estimates that for every meal provided by a food bank, nine are provided by SNAP.

During the recent recession, for unemployed low-income women, SNAP was more available than unemployment benefits, since many low-wage jobs do not last long enough to allow a worker to qualify for such benefits.

Social workers well understand the affect of trauma on clients and how that can impact many areas of life, including participation in the workforce. Many social work clients, e.g., people living with serious mental illness and others, receive SNAP as one of a number of benefits and services. Potentially they will be affected by these cuts and may be at a higher risk for losing them than other members of the general population. While most social workers don’t work in basic needs programs such as shelters or food banks/pantries, making referrals to food assistance programs is a common activity.

Swelling Ranks
SNAP is well recognized as the major food assistance program in the United States. Enrollment has increased since 2000, notably during the recession that began in 2007 and later, due to lagging increases in wages. In 2018, according to USDA, 39.7 million people received SNAP during an average month.

The changes, beginning with restrictions to eligibility for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) that go into effect April 1, 2020, may eventually affect up to 5.3 million people. According to the USDA, $1.1 billion will be saved by the ABAWD rule alone. Other changes include changes to categorical eligibility and the standard utility allowance.

SNAP, first established in the 1960s as part of the Farm Bill, allows eligible low-income families and individuals to supplement their food budgets by use of an electronic benefit cards (similar to ATM cards). The benefit amount is loaded on a preset schedule and recipients can spend the provided amount on food only.

During the deliberations on the 2018 Farm Bill, the Trump administration proposed three new exclusionary rules. While they were eventually rejected by lawmakers, the Trump administration has reintroduced them through the rule-making process.

Essentially, says Kathy Fisher, an advocate and social worker for the Philadelphia-based Coalition Against Hunger,” They couldn’t get them into the legislation, so they are trying again.” Fisher’s comments are echoed by Ellen Vollinger, food stamp director at the Food Research and Action Center, who stated that the Trump administration was doing by executive order what they could not do through legislation.

All three changes rely on alteration of some factor of eligibility. Despite more than 140,000 overwhelmingly negative comments submitted to USDA, approximately 700,000 ABAWDs between the ages of 18 and 49 will lose SNAP.

Beginning with the 1996 Farm Bill, able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents have had to work 20 hours per week or attend employment and training activities or meet other requirements or face receiving benefits only three months out of 36. States have been able to request waivers to these work requirements if particular geographical areas exceed the national employment rate by 20% or meet other criteria. States are under no obligation to offer employment and training and many do not.

In 2017, according to USDA data, 88% of ABAWDs had incomes at or below 50% of the poverty level. About one-third lived in SNAP households with reported income; the average monthly income was $557, or 43% of the poverty level. In Franklin County, OH, of a sample of former recipients, 30% had not graduated from high school, 30% stated they had a physical or mental limitation, and 35.5% had felony convictions, some with multiple felonies or a combination of misdemeanors and felonies.

Many waiver areas are rural and experience a lack of jobs. In Georgia, where Perdue served as governor, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reflected that reality, stating that rural Georgians are more likely to need the help of food stamps to pay for their groceries. In Pennsylvania, in 2006, 25 of 30 waiver counties (out of 67 total) were rural. Circumstances in many rural areas have not improved since the recession.

Mathematica Policy Research reports that 33 states had waivers for all or part of the state in 2017. Ten states including Alaska, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and Rhode Island have statewide waivers. The 17 states without waivers were concentrated in the agricultural Midwest and South. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, every state except Delaware has used waivers since the policy began in 1996.

The new rule restricts statewide waivers and raises the eligibility criteria to apply for waivers.

Of the 700,000 ABAWDs who live in waiver areas, a significant percentage may be young adults. According to Mathematica Policy Research, some 498,000 ABAWDs are aged 18–21. Of those, about one-third live in waiver areas. At the same time, hunger on college campuses is a growing issue and some 400 campuses have opened food banks for students. These changes will restrict the ability of those students to potentially receive SNAP, a better source of stable nutrition. In 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that there may be 2 million students eligible for SNAP (under the old rules) and not receiving.

The other two rules advanced by the Trump administration include changes to countable assets and categorical eligibility, as well as the standard utility allowance (SUA).

The most far-reaching change will affect eligibility by reducing a state’s ability to use categorical eligibility. Under this rule, states can increase income eligibility limits from the minimum 130% of the poverty level up to 200% of the poverty level and waive asset tests. At least 10 states currently use the 200% income limit, including some with the highest housing costs in the country, e.g., California and Massachusetts. Most states with broad-based categorical eligibility waive the asset test, according to the Urban Institute. All but 10 states use a higher gross income limit ranging from 150% to 200%.

Of the three changes, this rule will result in the greatest number of current recipients losing benefits. USDA estimates that 9% of recipients (or 3.6 million recipients) will lose SNAP and reduce the aggregate benefit amount by 5%.

Enrollment rates would fall by more than 10% in 14 states, including Delaware (17.7%), Wisconsin (16.2%), Oregon (14.2%), and Vermont (14%), according to the Urban Institute. Households with a member 60 years old would be most likely to be affected by the rule. Almost 12% of all such households would be affected by this rule.

The SUA rule was created in the mid-1970s to simplify deductions used in determining eligibility and benefit amounts and reduce errors.

Current guidance to states on the SUA, issued by USDA in 1979, advises setting it at 95th percentile of average statewide utility costs for low-income people. The new standard would be set at 80% and calculated in a different way. It mostly impacts the benefit amount rather than overall eligibility. The Urban Institute estimates that aggregate benefits would fall in 29 states and increase in the remaining 21. Vermont (21.6%), New York (11.1%), South Dakota, and Maine would suffer the biggest decrease; Mississippi, Alabama, and Arizona would have the largest increases, all under 5%. Nationally 22,000 households would lose eligibility and SNAP benefits would fall by 786 million.

Further Repercussions
If all three rules are adopted, the Urban Institute estimates that SNAP participation would fall by at least 15% in 13 states, with the greatest impacts in Nevada and the District of Columbia. Total benefits would fall by 15% in nine states, with Vermont at 29% and Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia at 19% each.

The charitable food assistance system will be unable to meet the need, says Margarette Purvis, president of the food bank for New York City. “There is no amount of generosity by corporate or traditional philanthropy that will make up for this loss caused by policy.” In addition, there can be a mismatch in the geographic location of food pantries and soup kitchens and where people experiencing food insecurity live.

And rather than need decreasing, as Perdue appears to assume, a recent survey found that among agencies surveyed, 85% reported an increase in first-time visitors in 2019.

— Suzanne McDevitt, PhD, is an associate professor at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania.