Pennsylvania pushes back against federal efforts to curb food assistance program
Pennsylvania’s human services secretary on Monday called the Trump administration’s proposal to cut food stamp eligibility “cruel and unacceptable.”
The proposal would force states to scale back the number of people whom they deem eligible for monthly benefits from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Pennsylvania and 41 other states set higher income limits for certain households that qualify for a non-cash Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, benefit. That designation makes them automatically eligible for SNAP.
Such “broad-based categorical eligibility” gives states the discretion to “extend food assistance benefits to more low-income families and individuals who would otherwise struggle to make ends meet,” DHS Secretary Teresa Miller said.
The proposed rule change would cancel food stamp benefits of about 120,000 Pennsylvania households, or about 200,000 people statewide, Miller said.
Of those 200,000, an estimated 16,500 live in Allegheny County and more than 6,000 in Westmoreland County, according to DHS. Philadelphia County stands to lose the most at nearly 36,000 people.
“We strongly oppose any and all attacks on SNAP and will continue to fight against any attempt to take the program away from Pennsylvanians who need it,” Miller said.
DHS has submitted comments in opposition to the rule change being considered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP. The proposed rule was published in the Federal Register on July 23, followed by a 60-day comment window.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in July that the rule change will close a SNAP loophole. The USDA estimates that 8% of current SNAP recipients, or 3.1 million people, will lose their eligibility under the rule change.
“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” Perdue said. “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.”
In some states, people qualify for SNAP through a minimal TANF benefit, such as an information brochure, without getting a “robust eligibility determination,” said Brandon Lipps, deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services.
“That is not good for the integrity or longevity of this program,” Lipps said.
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.
“The drastic reduction of (broad-based categorical eligibility) would disproportionately affect working families, the elderly and individuals with disabilities in Pennsylvania,” Miller said. “It is cruel and unacceptable.”
It also would eliminate free or reduced-price school lunch eligibility for more than 22,588 Pennsylvania households, she said.
Miller said she has been traveling the state for Hunger Action Month and has heard concerns from local food banks about the lack of a backup plan if that many people lose benefits.
“One of the things I hear from all of them is: We can’t make up the difference. SNAP is such an important anti-hunger program that I don’t think our local charitable food networks will be able to make up that difference,” she said.
Lipps said the new rule retains categorical eligibility but eliminates the “broad-based” flexibility that states have exercised and that the Trump administration considers wasteful.
“Going forward, those who receive nominal TANF benefits will need to qualify for SNAP in the same way that everyone else must qualify,” Perdue said. “Our fix restores confidence in eligibility for SNAP, is consistent from state to state, contains costs and better aligns SNAP with other means-tested programs nationwide.”
To confer automatic eligibility for SNAP under the proposal, a household must receive TANF-funded cash or non-cash benefits valued at a minimum of $50 per month for at least six months. In addition, non-cash benefits that could convey automatic eligibility would be restricted to subsidized employment, work supports or child care, according to USDA.
Stephen Huba is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Stephen at 724-850-1280, [email protected] or via Twitter .