Agriculture Health

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this week a proposal to tighten the rules on who qualifies for food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). USDA estimates more than three million people across the country would lose SNAP benefits in an effort to prevent fraud. Anti-hunger advocates in the Ohio Valley say the more than two million people in the region who use the benefits would be impacted.

The department wants to change what they call “broad-based categorical eligibility” in the SNAP program. The regulation allows people that don’t have a low enough income to qualify for food stamps to get them in other ways. For example, people can also qualify if they receive assistance from other federal programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families

“Eighty-nine percent of the people that we serve are what we refer to as working, poor families,” said Facing Hunger Food Bank Executive Director Cynthia Kirkhart. “So those are folks that are working one or more jobs to try to make a living. And those families usually have children.”

Kirkhart said her food bank in Huntington, West Virginia serves 116,000 people across 17 counties in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Most of the people she serves get food stamps through categorical eligibility. She said these families often use the money they save on food because of SNAP to build emergency savings or pay other bills. 

The USDA argues that by tightening SNAP eligibility rules, the department can save billions of dollars by preventing abuses of the program. The department pointed to an example of a wealthy Minnesota man who claims he collected thousands of dollars in food stamps. 

But Kirkhart said without the current rules, she sees some in the Ohio Valley may lose that extra support. 

“The resources they may receive otherwise — pay compensation or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — more of that goes to buy food,” Kirkhart said. “They can’t pay for rent or utilities, or fuel for their cars to get to their jobs.”

If individuals can’t get food stamps through categorical eligibility, then the traditional way to determine food stamp eligibility is through figuring out whether their gross income, along with combined assets like a car, is low enough to qualify. And that can take time to figure out.

“When I was a case worker before broad-based categorical eligibility… I would spend a lot of energy having my applicants go to the bank and prove that they had 42 dollars in the bank,” said Jason Dunn, a policy analyst with the advocacy group Kentucky Voices For Health.

Dunn is a former director of the Kentucky Division of Family Support, an agency that helps manages SNAP eligibility in the state. He said it can take a significant amount of time to determine if gross income is low enough to qualify, and that categorical eligibility speeds up this process.

With the potential of tighter rules, more people wouldn’t automatically qualify for SNAP and have to go through this “asset test”. Dunn said this could create a backlog of cases that could ultimately increase the wait time for people who need SNAP.

“When you add that for hundreds of thousands of cases, it really adds up in time and effort on the state’s part,” Dunn said. 

State agencies in the Ohio Valley don’t yet know exactly how many people could be affected by this proposal. Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia combined have 2,221,188 people signed up for SNAP benefits as of April 2019, according to USDA data. And a report last year by Daily Yonder, an online news outlet that focuses on rural issues, showed rural counties — including in central Appalachia — are more reliant on SNAP. 

“Probably disproportionately [people in Appalachia] would be more impacted than in urban areas because of the concentration of SNAP recipients,” said Ohio Association of Foodbanks Executive Director Lisa Hamler-Fugitt. 

Hamler-Fugitt said grocery stores in rural areas that would otherwise be food deserts depend on money from food stamp sales. She said if fewer people are eligible for food stamps, these stores could see less revenue. 

“When SNAP comes under attack and results in people being unable to receive a modest benefit and to be able to stand in grocery store check-out lines, then what happens is that those retailers that rely on not only cash sales but SNAP sales are very vulnerable,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “And many of them, if you know anything about the grocery industry, they operate on very slim margins. What we’re at risk of is losing even more full-service grocery stores.”

Hamler-Fugitt said that could impact people beyond those who use SNAP benefits. 

The proposed rule is open for public comments for two months.