Interactive Map: Where New Jerseyans Are Hungriest

Federal legislation before Congress could strip thousands of New Jersey’s most vulnerable citizens of their SNAP food-assistance benefits

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Legislation moving through Congress could reduce or eliminate food assistance benefits for more than 100,000 New Jerseyans if it becomes law, advocates warn.

Almost 800,000 residents, or close to 9 percent of the state’s population, received help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, last July, data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows.

The state Legislature has just approved a bill (A-3010) that would reinstate food assistance to more than 100,000 who lost it four years ago due to the last major change by Congress to SNAP, formerly known as food stamps. It’s now on Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk, awaiting approval.

But new proposed changes to SNAP contained in the Farm Bill, which cleared the House Agriculture Committee along party lines on Wednesday, would negate that gain and cut benefits further. It would expand and tighten strict work requirements for receiving SNAP, lower the maximum income level at which families could qualify, and eliminate a program tying benefit size to heating assistance. All of these changes would have the effect of cutting or eliminating benefits paid to low-income residents under the program formerly called food stamps.

“This would be potentially terribly devastating to the state,” said Adele LaTourette, director of the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition. “It’s beyond draconian.”

Barely getting by

More than 40 million people across the country receive SNAP benefits. In New Jersey, advocates say the program keeps 155,000 out of poverty, roughly half of them children, even though the program provides only a modest amount of assistance: The average household got $227 per month last year, while the average amount each person received per meal was just $1.24.

The Food Research and Action Center estimates that the bill’s provisions would cut SNAP benefits by $20 billion over 10 years. Raymond Castro, director of health policy at the progressive think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, estimated the impact in the state at $265 million in lost nutrition assistance over a decade.

“It’s very punitive,” said Castro. “So many people could be subject to the work requirements, it could cut people off from SNAP.”

Castro estimates at least 28,000 New Jerseyans would get reduced food aid or lose it all together as a result of the tougher work requirements the bill would impose.

Much tighter requirements

Currently, people who are not disabled, have no dependents, and are between 18 and 50 must work or participate in education or training for 80 hours a month to qualify for SNAP. The legislation would expand that requirement to adults up to age 60 unless they have a dependent under age 6. It would also toughen the requirements, so that a person who does not meet the work or training requirement would have just one month to get into compliance before losing food assistance for a year. Castro said the bureaucracy envisioned to enforce this would lead to people being sanctioned “without even knowing they were required to work” and losing benefits before they could comply. While the bill would provide additional funding to states to oversee these requirements, advocates said it would not be enough.

“It would be impossible to manage,” said LaTourette. “A lot of people would fall off the program, unable to comply.”

An analysis by the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that in the 2016 fiscal year, about 106,000 people would have been in danger of losing SNAP benefits had the more stringent work requirements been in place. That’s the number of adults who were not disabled, had no children under age six and did not work at least 20 hours a week in a typical month.

Other programmatic changes in the bill would change the way states screen families and count assets for eligibility, leaving them no option for giving assistance to those with incomes higher than 130 percent of the poverty limit. This would especially hurt people in high-cost states like New Jersey, which currently uses 185 percent of poverty as its guide.

Castro said this change “would cause even more harm and lost benefits” than the employment requirements.

No more ‘heat and eat’

Another provision of the House bill would eliminate states’ ability to tie SNAP benefits to the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. The so-called “heat and eat” program gives people who receive help with their heating and cooling bills additional food assistance. New Jerseyans used to benefit from heat and eat by receiving as little as $1 annually from LIHEAP, until Congress increased the eligibility amount to $20 in its last major Farm Bill overhaul. That was also an effort to cut the SNAP budget. Other states increased LIHEAP payments to $21 and the New Jersey Legislature passed a bill doing the same, but it was vetoed by then-Gov. Chris Christie. Lawmakers recently approved that change, which would make more than 100,000 residents eligible for an additional $90 per month in food aid, and Murphy is expected to sign the measure. But if the Farm Bill eliminates that provision, it would negate that change should Murphy sign it.

Should the bill ultimately be signed into law, its effect on counties in New Jersey would be uneven.

The changes would have a significant impact in several New Jersey counties where large populations have low incomes. In Passaic County, nearly 100,000 people, or close to two in 10 residents, received assistance under the program last July. In Cumberland County, almost 18 percent of people, or more than 27,000, got SNAP payments.

In wealthier counties, on the other hand, fewer people receive the assistance. For instance, in Hunterdon County, just 2.1 percent of the population, or fewer than 2,700 people, benefitted from SNAP, while in Morris County, the program helped about 13,000 people, or 2.7 percent of all residents.

Data from the NJ Department of Human Services shows that a wide range of the state’s residents benefit from SNAP: almost 48 percent of those getting food aid were children, 17 percent were senior citizens, and close to 30 percent were disabled.

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