NJ Spotlight


Tens of thousands of low-income New Jerseyans could be cut from the program that helps them buy food because of a proposed change in federal regulations. And the change could have a ripple effect on school-lunch eligibility, advocates say.

Anti-hunger advocates are urging people to register opposition to the United States Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule change, which would restrict eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The USDA is accepting comments on the proposal through Monday.

“This a harmful, misguided proposal that would hurt tens of thousands of New Jersey residents who struggle to put food on the table for themselves and their children,” said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey. “"Thousands of students would also lose access to school lunch under this plan. We have seen a groundswell of opposition to this proposal because it will almost certainly increase hunger and poverty in New Jersey.”

Proposed in last July, the changes to SNAP, formerly called food stamps, 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 the change take effect.

A recent analysis by Mathematica and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (which gives financial support to NJ Spotlight) estimates that 11 percent of New Jersey households would lose SNAP benefits due to the change. That translates into more than 47,000 households, or 92,000 individuals. The average monthly benefit, according to the analysis, is $130 per household.

USDA: Move would save billions of dollars

In announcing its proposal two months ago, the USDA said the new rule was needed to close a loophole that allowed states to provide SNAP benefits to people who don’t need them. The department stated that the change would save billions of dollars.

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue at the time. “Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint. The American people expect their government to be fair, efficient, and to have integrity … That is why we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.”

Current law allows states to establish policies enabling households that get a noncash benefit through another federal relief program, called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), to qualify for SNAP by meeting the less restrictive TANF financial criteria. This allows households with slightly higher gross incomes, more savings or other resources, to still qualify for SNAP benefits. The households still have to meet SNAP’s nonfinancial eligibility criteria, including its work requirements.

That more flexible policy is especially important in high-cost states like New Jersey, where advocates have long argued the federal poverty level — currently $25,750 for a family of four — does not reflect economic reality.

The United Way of Northern New Jersey’s most recent “ALICE” report calculates that a family of four with two young children in childcare needed an annual income of $74,748 in 2016 to cover basic expenses; a single adult living alone needed $26,640. The designation of a category of people known as ALICE — asset limited, income constrained, employed — grew out of the notion that the federal poverty level does not fully capture the size of the population unable to make ends meet in high-cost states.

Assets would also be counted

The proposed change to SNAP would also add an asset test for applicants, meaning that bank accounts and cars would be considered when determining both whether a person qualifies and the level of assistance that person would receive each month.

“People with even meager savings could be hurt,’’ said Carlos Rodriguez, who leads the Community Food Bank of New Jersey. “The proposed rule change would literally ramp up hunger in our communities. We already struggle to keep pace with the need and this would only make it worse in communities across New Jersey.’’

Mathematica’s analysis found that the change would cost some 3.6 million Americans their food assistance — roughly 9 percent of all households currently receiving SNAP.

“Under the proposed rule, millions of vulnerable families will have an even harder time making ends meet and putting food on the table,” said Dr. Richard Besser, president of the RWJ Foundation. “Any reforms to SNAP should reduce food insecurity, not exacerbate it. We urge USDA to withdraw this rule and reconsider its approach to SNAP.”

Many children could also lose access to free school meals, as eligibility is often directly tied to the SNAP application process. That would put their health and learning at risk, said LaTourette of Hunger Free New Jersey.

Local mayors among the opponents

In a letter last month to the associate administrator of SNAP, the U.S. Conference of Mayors expressed its “strong opposition” to the rule change. Among the signatories were the mayors of Bloomfield, North Brunswick, Piscataway and Plainfield.

“SNAP remains one of our nation’s key resources in the fight against hunger and is particularly important to vulnerable populations in our cities,” the letter states. “80 percent of SNAP households include a child, an elderly person, or a person with disabilities; and 85 percent of all SNAP benefits go to such households. Furthermore, SNAP is not only a critical resource in the fight against hunger and food insecurity, but also lifts people out of poverty.”

This is the second major attempt by the administration of President Donald Trump to cut SNAP benefits. Last year, Congress rejected a proposal to impose work requirements through the farm bill, the federal legislation that governs SNAP policy and funding.

This plan does not require congressional approval, but the administration must consider public comments submitted during a 60-day period, which ends Sept. 23.

The Food Research & Action Center created a web platform that makes it easy for people to weigh in on the proposed rule change, said LaTourette, whose organization is a partner of the anti-hunger nonprofit.

SNAP currently serves nearly 690,000 people in New Jersey, including about 319,000 children. It also pumps more than a billion dollars into local stores in the state each year, according to Hunger Free New Jersey. The state Department of Human Services estimates that if the new rule is adopted, New Jersey stands to lose about $33 million that goes to families to buy food.

“We urge all New Jersey residents, as well as local and state leaders, to send a strong message to the Trump Administration,’’ said Rodriguez of the Community Food Bank. “Cutting aid to people struggling to put food on the table is bad public policy for all of us.’’

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