About 50,000 Pennsylvanians who rely on the federal food stamp program stand to lose their benefits under a new Trump administration rule that will tighten work requirements for recipients.
The rule, announced Wednesday, will limit the ability of states to exempt work-eligible adults from having to obtain steady employment in order to receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Program, known as SNAP, which feeds more than 36 million people nationally.
In Pennsylvania, the majority of people who will be affected by the change live in Philadelphia. According to Philabundance, approximately 38,000 Philadelphians will lose access to SNAP.
“Any cuts to SNAP are going to put a strain on our ... emergency food system,” Kate Scully, director of government affairs at Philabundance, said. “We already, unfortunately, have lines in our pantry, which we don’t want to see. This is just going to increase the number of people who need our services.”
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Under current rules, able-bodied adults without dependents and between the ages of 18 and 49 can receive only three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period if they don’t meet the 20-hour work requirement. But states with high unemployment rates or a demonstrable lack of sufficient jobs can waive those time limits.
The new rule imposes stricter criteria states must meet in order to issue waivers. Under the plan, states can only issue waivers if a city or county has an unemployment rate of 6% or higher. The waivers will be good for one year and will require the governor to support the request.
Philadelphia’s unemployment rate was 5.2% in November, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The city’s poverty rate, however, hovered around 25%, according to U.S. Census data.
“We’re serving 90,000 people a week in an area that has 700,000 people struggling with hunger,” Scully said. “If this SNAP rule goes into effect, it’ll be an additional 38,000 people just here in Philadelphia that won’t have their SNAP benefits any longer.”
A spokesperson for Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Pat Toomey said he welcomes the change, saying that the policy “protects taxpayers and ensures public assistance is distributed in a manner consistent with its original intent – to help those who need it most.”
“With robust economic growth, record low unemployment, and millions of available jobs, the administration is right to ask able-bodied, working-aged childless adults who want taxpayer-funded food stamps to seek part-time work,” he said.
The new rules go into effect in April.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the change would save roughly $5.5 billion over five years and cut benefits for roughly 688,000 SNAP recipients.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the rule will help move people “from welfare to work.”
“We want to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not an infinitely giving hand,” he said.
But Congressional Democrats and advocates were quick to condemn the administration's actions.
“These proposed changes will … disproportionately impact working families, people with disabilities and seniors,” Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said in reference to a portion of the policy change that would affect the method Pennsylvania uses to determine a utility allowance for SNAP recipients.
“This rule would force families who rely on SNAP to choose between putting food on their table or other necessities such as heating their home or paying for medical costs," she added.
In addition to cutting access to resources, the change caused confusion among many recipients. Philadelphia resident Amanda Barron initially thought she would lose her SNAP benefits. The 34-year-old mother of six said she was “scared, confused, worried.”
Barron said she receives $600 a month in SNAP benefits. Because she has children, she will not lose that assistance. But the changes make her nervous, she said.
“I have a lot of friends that don’t have children and rely on the system,” she said. “It’s leaving them struggling right now.”
Over the past year the Agriculture Department has proposed three significant changes to the food stamp program. In addition to restricting time limit waivers, the USDA has proposed eliminating broad-based categorical eligibility, a measure that allows recipients of certain non-cash public benefits to automatically qualify for food stamps, and changing how utility costs are factored into benefit calculations.
Brandon Lipps, deputy under secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, did not say when the department will finalize the other two proposed rules.
The Urban Institute in a study released last month estimated that taken together, the three measures would affect roughly 2.2 million households, and 3.7 million individual beneficiaries.