Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Food access for about 12,000 people across Fayette, Greene, Washington and Westmoreland counties and about 200,000 people throughout Pennsylvania could be jeopardized by a Trump administration proposal to change how states determine who qualifies for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, according to the state Department of Human Services.

DHS Secretary Teresa Miller detailed the department’s opposition to the proposal this week, warning that it would increase hunger across Pennsylvania and disproportionately impact working families, individuals with disabilities and seniors.

“It is cruel and unacceptable,” Miller said of the proposal.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed refining categorical eligibility requirements based on receipt of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) benefits, a rule that would cut food stamp benefits for an estimated 3.1 million people.

The USDA would close what it calls the “nominal benefits loophole,” as states currently apply categorical eligibility with benefits as minimal as an informational brochure describing social services or hotline numbers provided to households.

The proposed rule would define “benefits” for categorical eligibility to mean ongoing and substantial benefits and limit the types of non-cash TANF benefits conferring categorical eligibility to those that focus on subsidized employment, work supports and child care.

Per the rule, households would have to receive TANF benefits valued at a minimum of $50 per month and get benefits for at least six months.

Miller said that if broad-based categorical eligibility is reduced, a Pennsylvania family of four’s SNAP income limit would drop from about $40,000 a year to no more than $32,000 a year. For elderly single-person households, the income limit would change from roughly $24,000 a year to about $15,000.

“Reducing broad-based categorical eligibility will have the direct opposite effect of promoting economic mobility and employment and will destabilize families, making it harder for them to move out of poverty,” Miller said.

Since students are automatically eligible for free and reduced priced lunch if they receive SNAP benefits, more than 22,000 households in Pennsylvania would lose access to programs that provide meals for children at school, after school and during the summer, Miller said.

One in every 5 households in Fayette County receives SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, according to 2013-17 five-year estimates from the American Community Survey. Fayette County’s household clip of 20.6% ranks second among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties behind only Philadelphia County, and well above the statewide figure of 13% and nationwide figure of 12.6%.

According to DHS data, 2,621 people in Fayette County would be impacted by the USDA proposal, or 2% of the overall population, per 2018 American Community Survey population estimates, the ninth-greatest population share among Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. (Philadelphia and Somerset counties have the highest and second-highest percentage of their populations that would be affected by the proposal.)

In Greene County, 452 people would be affected, with 2,788 to be affected in Washington County and 6,013 in Westmoreland County, per DHS data.

“Pennsylvania has been pretty good about having higher eligibility criteria,” according to Darlene Bigler, the CEO of Blueprints, the social services organization. She noted the children who would no longer be eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches, and would harm individuals and families that are working if they fall just outside the eligibility requirements.

“A lot of people who are working are currently eligible,” she said. “It would put Pennsylvania back in a situation where they are not rewarding work.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has claimed that some people are receiving SNAP benefits even when they don’t need them, and the USDA in its news release announcing the proposed rule change in July cited the example of Rob Undersander, a millionaire in Minnesota who said he received about $6,000 in SNAP benefits over a 19-month stretch to prove a point that not everyone who receives food stamps needs them.

U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Lehigh County, and U.S. Rep. Guy Reschenthaler, R-Peters Township, welcomed the proposed rule change in July, hailing it as a measure that would ensure that aid is not squandered on those who don’t need it and help those who need it most.

On the other hand, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Lackawanna County, emphasized the importance of expanding access to school meals for the children who need them most, adding that the administration’s proposed change would “move us in the exact opposite direction.”

The USDA reported in July that SNAP’s national payment error rate – a measure of both overpayments and underpayments made by all states to program participants – was 6.8% in fiscal year 2018. Pennsylvania’s payment error rate was 6.51%.

SNAP payment error rates are not a measure of fraud, but a representation of how accurately states are determining participants eligible for the program and issuing the correct amount of benefits.

Monday was the deadline for public comments to be submitted regarding the proposal. Miller and Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera filed comments opposing the measure. The USDA has not announced when it will issue a final rule.

Miller said food pantries and banks at the local level wouldn’t be able to fill the food access void that she predicts the USDA proposal will leave.

“One of the things I hear from all of them is, ‘We can’t make up this difference,’” Miller said. “ … I get asked a lot about that, what’s the backup plan? There is no backup plan. We need to stop these cuts because these are going to have a real impact on families, and our local charitable food networks are going to try to make up that difference. But I think they’re going to struggle to do it.”

Connie Burd, executive director of the Greater Washington County Food Bank, said the proposed change “would put greater pressure on our families.”

She continued, “That’s on the heels of cuts that have already been made.” She also said it could hurt senior citizens who are on fixed incomes.

Rebecca Cook, the director of shelter services for Southwest Pennsylvania Human Services Connect, explained that the families who come to the Washington Family Shelter on Highland Avenue in the city rely on the SNAP program.

“They depend on SNAP to survive,” she said. “The jobs many we serve have don’t pay enough for all their needs after rent, clothing for their children and other necessities of life. Without that assistance, if their children receive a free lunch in school, they might not have a dinner to come home to.”

Staff writer Brad Hundt contributed to this story.

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