There has been a lot of talk lately about changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the correct name for what many people still call “food stamps.” 

What is SNAP?

The SNAP program is the most important anti-hunger program in the country. SNAP helps people stay healthy and avoid food insecurity when they cannot make ends meet. This reduces the demand on medical services and the expenses associated with chronic poor health. 

In Pennsylvania alone, more than 1.7 million people rely on SNAP to access food, including 700,000 children, 690,000 people with disabilities, and 300,000 older adults. 

In Lancaster, there are 48,571 families receiving SNAP benefits, about 8.9% of the county’s population.

Changes to work requirement waiver rules

There is a big change to SNAP coming on April 1, 2020. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has restricted the states’ ability to waive work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents.

Previously, states had discretion to waive what are called “ABAWD” work requirements in areas with high unemployment or other economic challenges. 

This new rule also lowers the threshold for unemployment rates that must be met in order to qualify for a waiver set under federal law. You can link to the final ABAWD rules here.

This rule change jeopardizes access to SNAP benefits for more than 92,000 Pennsylvanians, many of whom suffer from chronic health problems and other conditions preventing them from working and which could be worsened by chronic hunger. 

Sadly, this reduction impacts our most vulnerable adults, who often are not eligible for other public assistance and have an average income of just 18 percent of the poverty level. Most are in and out of the labor market and turn to SNAP as a bridge between jobs or seasonally; within a year of typical month of SNAP participation, nearly three quarters of non-disabled, non-elderly adults work.

Other proposed changes that will further reduce access to SNAP benefits

  1. Last July the USDA proposed a second new rule change that would further reduce access to SNAP benefits by eliminating the Broad Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE) for SNAP. Under the current BBCE the states have flexibility to determine appropriate income thresholds and extend SNAP benefits to low-income families and individuals who otherwise struggle to afford food.  

The public comment period on this rule has closed and it is on the Office of Management and Budget Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions to go final in May 2020.

Here’s how the cuts will work. Today, a Pennsylvania family of four is eligible for SNAP if they earn no more than around $40,000 per year. After BBCE is eliminated, that family’s SNAP eligibility income limit drops to no more than $32,000 per year. It is even worse for elderly single-person households; the income limit would change from approximately $24,000 to $15,000 per year.  

Around 120,000 Pennsylvania households are expected to be negatively impacted by this rule change.

The proposed changes to the BBCE rules have a harmful cascading effect on children, too. Currently, children of families eligible for SNAP also automatically qualify for free and reduced-price school lunches. It is estimated that with the BBCE changes, 84,000 Pennsylvania households will no longer be directly certified for the National School Lunch program, impacting tens of thousands of children. 

This reduction in enrollment in the school lunch program triggered by the BBCE changes has another, perhaps even more impactful impact on Pennsylvania children. The current law provides that if 40 percent or more of the children in a school district are eligible to receive free and reduced-price lunches, that district qualifies for the Community Eligibility Provision, which enables it to provide free school lunches to all of the district’s students. If under the new rules, the percentage of eligible children in a district falls below 40 percent, that school’s universal free lunch program will also be eliminated. That means even more kids going hungry at school.

You can read the full text of the proposed USDA BBCE rule here

2. USDA announced a third rule change last October, one that will alter the method the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania uses to determine the Heating/Cooling Standard Utility Allowance (SUA) used in determining SNAP benefits. 

Currently, states can consider regional utility costs when calculating a person’s monthly SNAP benefit. The changes substitute a standard SUA formula for the entire country, ignoring the dramatic regional differences in housing and utility expense. This would be particularly unfair for Pennsylvania and other states in the northeast that have significantly higher heating costs than the rest of the country.

The public comment period on this rule has closed and it is on the Office of Management and Budget Unified Agenda of Regulatory and Deregulatory Actions to go final in May 2020.

To illustrate the rule, a $10 reduction in SUA results in a $2 to $3 reduction in SNAP benefits each month. This means that a $200 reduction in the Heating and Cooling SUA would result in the loss of $40 to $60 in SNAP benefits. 

The proposed changes could negatively affect approximately 775,000 households in Pennsylvania. 

You can read the entire text of the USDA’s proposed SUA rule here.

Why do these cuts matter so much?

The devastating impact of these cuts cannot be understated. 

Despite the many assumptions about the elasticity of food banks, charity simply cannot make up the difference. For every meal provided by Feeding America food banks, SNAP benefits provide another nine! 

Remember, Congress rejected harsh cuts such as these when it passed the most recent Farm Bill in 2018. The Trump Administration is in effect undermining Congress’s decision to allow states to have flexibility in administering SNAP and maintaining the health and stability of families. 

The economic arguments against the proposed SNAP cuts are equally strong. For every $5 spent in SNAP generates $9 in economic activity in our communities. So, in addition to helping families preserve their health, financial stability and dignity, SNAP also has the positive effect of infusing about $2.6 billion into Pennsylvania’s economy (data from 2018). More than 100,000 retailers participate in SNAP across the Commonwealth. They and all of our communities would be hurt by these changes and the cash that will dry up as a result. 

What can you do?

The ABAWD rules are final and go into effect on April 1. 

The other two rules are not yet final, although the public comment period has closed. 

You can reach out the USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to voice your opposition to these changes. You can submit written comments on the USDA website using this form or by calling (202) 720-2791. He tweets as @secretarysonny

You can also email or call your representatives in Congress to tell them that you do not support these SNAP rule changes. You can click here to find out who represents you in the House of Representatives and get his or her contact information.   

Senator Bob Casey. You can submit this form to Senator Casey’s office or call (202) 224-6324.

Senator Pat Toomey. You can submit this form to Senator Toomey or call (202) 224-4254.