Advocates fret over Trump-backed proposal that could kick 200K Pennsylvanians off food stamps | TribLIVE.com
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Advocates fret over Trump-backed proposal that could kick 200K Pennsylvanians off food stamps

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Natasha Lindstrom | Tribune-Review
A sign informs customers that food stamps via the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program are accepted at the Dollar General store in Lower Burrell on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.

Human service agencies and advocates for low-income families across Western Pennsylvania are expressing concerns over a Trump administration proposal that threatens to eliminate food stamp benefits for tens of thousands of people in the region.

Backed by the White House, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is recommending a proposal that would force states like Pennsylvania to scale back the number of people whom they deem eligible for monthly benefits from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Gov. Tom Wolf estimated that the proposed rule change would cancel the food stamp benefits of about 200,000 people statewide.

Workers for food banks and nonprofits that support people living in poverty lament that such a change could hamper their ability to feed the hungry and knock people off the safety net who rely on assistance to put food on their tables.

“If they deserve it and need it, they should have it,” said James Reinsfelder, 48, who lives in a public housing high-rise in Tarentum. “I depend on it.”

Reinsfelder, a former stone mason, said he hasn’t held a steady job since his health issues got too severe for him to work about 10 years ago. He relies on about $100 a month from SNAP, in addition to Supplemental Security Income because he has a disability.

Nearly 1 in 10 may lose aid

The USDA estimates that the proposed change, if approved after a two-month public comment period, would strip SNAP eligibility from 3.1 million of 36 million recipients nationwide. The agency’s Food and Nutrition Service estimates about 8% of SNAP recipients across the country qualify through expanded eligibility policies in place in 39 states, including Pennsylvania.

The proposal would require states to use the federal income threshold and guidelines for food stamp eligibility, which authorize the benefits to people and families who earn no more than 130% of the federal poverty level. That amounts to about $16,000 a year for an individual and $32,000 a year for a family of four.

Pennsylvania provides SNAP benefits to applicants who earn up to 160% of the federal poverty level — closer to $18,000 for an individual and $38,000 a year for a family of four.

Of nearly 13 million Pennsylvania residents, more than 1.7 million are enrolled in the federally funded SNAP program, state records show.

About 1 in 10 people who receive food stamps qualify only because of Pennsylvania’s expanded eligibility guidelines, according to Wolf’s office.

As of last month, more than 310,000 people received SNAP benefits in the 11-county region served by the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank — nearly 18% of all recipients statewide. The region includes Allegheny, Butler, Armstrong, Beaver, Indiana, Washington, Fayette, Greene, Somerset, Cambria and Lawrence counties.

If the rule’s estimated impact holds proportional statewide, about 35,400 people would lose their benefits in that area alone, according to Dennis McManus, director of government affairs for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

In Westmoreland County, about 11.4% of roughly 350,000 residents — or more than 40,000 people — received SNAP benefits last year, said Mandy Zalich, CEO of Westmoreland County Community Action.

“By decreasing that percentage of the poverty line, those (agencies) that provide emergency services are going to see an increase. We’re all going to be taxed with trying to serve those families a little more,” Zalich said. “By decreasing the amount of people that can participate, the other agencies will have find ways to make up the difference. They may not be able to.”

‘First line of defense’

Suddenly eliminating food stamps could push many people off the so-called “benefits cliff,” said Jennifer Miller, CEO of the Westmoreland County Food Bank, whose service area includes New Kensington, Vandergrift and Lower Burrell. The food bank provides emergency food assistance to anyone making below 150% of the federal poverty line.

“When one goes from not working to working, a lot of times their benefits just drop. They get dropped from everything. There’s not an opportunity to (transition) them to being able to pay for bills, childcare, food and utilities,” Miller said.

“They need a tapering off rather than a stopping abruptly.”

Pennsylvania’s use of a higher income eligibility threshold signifies an acknowledgment that food insecurity can persist even if someone’s income increases or employment situation improves slightly, Miller said.

“SNAP is the first line of defense for food security for millions of families,” Miller said.

Alle-Kiski Valley resident Reinsfelder said he knows friends and family members raising young children while grappling with multiple jobs and their own health issues who depend on the extra help buying groceries even more than he does.

Wolf, a Democrat, criticized the Trump-backed proposal. He said that it would disproportionately impact the elderly, disabled and low-income families.

Reinsfelder said that he doubts that President Trump knows what it’s like for struggling families to make ends meet.

“He doesn’t think about things like SNAP,” Reinsfelder said. “He was born with a golden spoon.”

Hunger and nutrition top the list of needs called into the United Way of Southwestern Pennsylvania’s 211 helpline, CEO Bobbi Watt Geer said.

“There’s a lot of food insecurity going on, even with SNAP assistance,” Zalich said. “It does not necessarily meet all the food needs.”

The USDA’s proposal also could eliminate the current practice of SNAP recipients automatically qualifying for free- and reduced-price lunch programs at public schools.

In the past year, United Way received about 4,000 calls to its 2-1-1 helpline related to obtaining emergency food assistance across its five-county region.

United Way has not taken an official position on the federal proposal, but Watt Geer said the change likely would increase calls to the emergency assistance helpline.

“We would look forward to working with decision-makers and policymakers on how to best address the needs of the community,” Watt Geer said.

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