Food stamp rule changes might cut off 80,000 Michiganians

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By DANIELLE JAMES
Capital News Service

LANSING — A mid-Michigan lawmaker is urging federal officials to repeal new regulations that could disqualify 80,000 low-income state residents from food assistance. 

The policy change would take away states’ discretion to waive work requirements, making it hard for adults without dependents to receive food stamps in areas with few economic opportunities, said Rep. Kara Hope, D-Holt.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP,  provides food assistance to nearly 1.2 million Michigan residents, according to a resolution in the Legislature that Hope introduced and that opposes the change. 

Her resolution cites a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis saying nearly 80,000 Michigan residents may become ineligible for SNAP benefits under the impending change. 

 The change comes as nonprofit community programs that feed the hungry are already overburdened. 

“We’re seeing a lot of folks who need to pay their rent or can’t find work, and therefore are using the food banks more than they normally would,” said Val Stone, the staff coordinator for the Traverse City-based Northwest Food Coalition. “We’re expecting that those numbers are going to continue to go up.” 

The coalition’s 44 pantries served 249,000 people last year in Antrim, Benzie, Grand Traverse, Kalkaska, Leelanau and Wexford counties.

“When we see an increase in people, some of the banks are just not able to increase their purchasing power or donations,” Stone said.

While the economy may be improving, it’s not helping everyone, Hope said. The resolution is one of her top priorities for House Democrats in 2020.

“We are looking to protect people,” Hope said. “The economy is recovering, but people are still stuck, and the current changes affect areas with few economic and employment opportunities.” 

Hope said that her goal is to bring concerns to the federal government, starting with the resolution, which is an expression of legislative sentiment that has no legal effect.

Since 2018, able-bodied participants between 18 and 49 without dependents can receive benefits for only three months out of a three-year period unless they consistently meet a 20 hour-a-week work requirement, according to the Department of Agriculture. 

States can waive the requirement in cities, counties and labor markets with an unemployment rate at least 20 percent higher than the national average, or in areas with an unemployment rate of 10 percent or more. 

A labor market is a geographic area where individuals live and find work within a reasonable distance or can change jobs without changing where they live.  

The new regulations, scheduled to take effect in April, will limit states’ ability to remove the work requirement in certain areas, according to Peter Ruark, a senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. 

“The 10% floor is still in place,” Ruark said. “But if the area has an unemployment rate of 20% higher than the national average, it must also have at least a 6% flat unemployment rate as well.” 

This may change which counties qualify to remove work requirements. 

“The new policy means that an area cannot receive a waiver, even if it meets the criteria, unless the entire labor market has equally high unemployment,” Ruark said. 

That could hurt counties across Michigan, disqualifying people from food assistance, he said. 

“Most SNAP recipients work, but during times of high unemployment they might not be able to put in their 20 hours per week,” Ruark said. “This would cause them to lose their food assistance.”  

Some states misuse the waiver system, according to the Department of Agriculture. It reports that about half of able-bodied dependents in the food program live in waived areas, despite low unemployment across the country. 

The department encourages participants to take steps towards long-term self-sufficiency and is limiting waivers to areas that have the highest need and meet the new conditions. 

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is concerned about the possible loss of SNAP benefits, said Bob Wheaton, a public information officer for the agency.  

“It’s our top priority to help people have access to healthy nutritious food, so we’re concerned about the Trump administration’s efforts to push people off food benefits,” he said. 

The agency has not taken a formal position on the resolution, but is exploring alternatives to give low-income residents more access to food. 

“In a lot of communities, there are food pantries and private agencies that can provide help,” Wheaton said. “We encourage people to look into those organizations, but it’s a concern that they might become overburdened by people losing assistance.”

According to Ruark, the disqualification of more recipients could also harm the economy. 

“If there’s a community that’s already suffering from high employment and people lose their food assistance, they have less money to spend at local businesses,” Ruark said.

Hope’s resolution is pending in the House Appropriations Committee.