Some 12,000 New Jerseyans stand to lose federal food assistance next year due to a Trump administration program change, the first significant cut in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Saying he is returning SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, to its intended purpose as temporary help in tough times, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced last Thursday the finalization of a rule that will make it harder for states to provide more than three months of food aid to certain adults unless they work at least 20 hours a week.
“This rule change will surely increase hunger in New Jersey,’’ said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey. “These folks are among the poorest of the poor and usually ineligible to receive any other government assistance. Often, SNAP is the only help they receive. To deny this basic help to our most vulnerable residents is unconscionable.’’
The monthly SNAP benefit is already meager — $114 on average, or $1.24 per meal in 2017, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. But it is a help to people in need, say state officials and advocates. The rule change will take away the only assistance received by many people who are indigent and can’t find much employment.
Carole Johnson, commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, called it “simply wrong” for the Trump administration to limit the flexibility the state has used to help people back on their feet as the state’s economy continues improving.
‘More pressure on food banks’
“New Jersey has been able to use the flexibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance or SNAP program to help individuals without dependents who face challenging economic circumstances continue to receive SNAP benefits beyond a three-month limit,” Johnson said. “This will set back the work we have done to help these New Jerseyans and will put more pressure on food banks and others across the state to try to fill in the gaps. It is simply bad policy.”
Gov. Phil Murphy has signed into law a number of patches to the state’s safety net programs, including a restoration of SNAP to some residents cut off by the former Christie administration and expanded housing aid. He said he is committed to trying to help people retain their SNAP benefits.
“President Trump continues to attack our residents in need, and this new rule change will impact thousands of New Jerseyans who are struggling to make ends meet. In New Jersey, we will do everything we can in order to fight back against the inhumane and cruel policies coming from the Trump Administration. We cannot stand by while our residents go hungry and will explore all possible paths forward.”
But U.S. Department of Agriculture officials say that while the country is in the longest economic expansion in history with a 3.6% unemployment rate, there are more than twice as many Americans receiving SNAP — a total of 36 million — as there were at the start of the century when unemployment was at a slightly higher 4%.
“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” Perdue said. “Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work. This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”
The USDA’s rule change will limit states’ ability to continue to provide SNAP payments to able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents (ABAWD). States have been able to receive waivers from SNAP work requirements for areas with high unemployment. The new rule puts stricter standards on states that seek a waiver. Able-bodied adults aged 18 to 49, without dependents, who live in areas where unemployment is less than 10% will have to work 20 hours a week to continue to get benefits.
That can be tough, anti-hunger advocates said, for people who lack access to job opportunities or cannot find a job that gives them enough hours of work per week.
Asking Trump administration to reconsider
When Congress first put time limits on SNAP in 1996, lawmakers created the waiver provision for areas with few jobs. Advocates said the waivers were already insufficient but nevertheless provided safety valves for protecting food assistance for people unable to find enough hours of work. They said Perdue’s action is directly counter to congressional intent, given the Farm Bill Congress passed last year left the current waiver provisions in place.
Some state legislators urged the Trump administration to reconsider the rule change.
“This new rule is a horrific attack on some of our nation’s most vulnerable households,” said Assemblywoman Joann Downey (D-Monmouth), who chairs the Assembly Human Services Committee. “The SNAP program is an essential support system for working low-income individuals and families who face incredibly high expenses in areas including groceries, housing, and healthcare.”
The new rule could begin limiting SNAP benefits in April 2020, forcing as many as 700,000 adults nationwide to lose their food assistance.
Advocates predict it will increase hunger and poverty rates and do nothing to improve employment. It will also hurt the economy, grocery retailers, agricultural producers, and communities by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur local economic activity, they say.
The rule change only affects adults without children and without a disability, who are considered able to work. It does not apply to children and their parents, people age 50 or older, pregnant women or the disabled.
It’s not the only cut under consideration
In September 2019, more than 341,000 households in New Jersey, with 673,966 individuals, received SNAP benefits, according to state DHS data. The total amount that came into the state to cover SNAP in August 2019 was $78.9 million, USDA data shows. SNAP funding for fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30, 2019, was $875 million.
This is the first finalized cutback in the SNAP program, but not the only one the Trump administration is seeking.
Another proposed change under consideration by the USDA would end the practice of allowing working people with gross incomes slightly above the poverty level to qualify for benefits. New Jersey is one of 42 states and territories in which individuals would lose their SNAP aid should that change take effect. Advocates have long argued that the federal poverty level, currently $25,750 for a family of four, does not reflect economic reality in a high-cost state like New Jersey. This change would impact significantly more people than the stricter ABAWD rule; an estimated 11% of New Jersey households would lose their SNAP benefits, translating into about 92,000 individuals.