Federal Shutdown, Waiver Proposals Threaten SNAP, Put Residents at Risk

The following is a guest blog post written by Sheila Christopher, Executive Director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania.

Two recent developments in the federal government could spell disaster for thousands Pennsylvanians who receive monthly food benefits.

If President Trump keeps the government shut down through February, as he recently suggested, monthly food benefits could stop. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, one of the federal agencies that shut down in late December as part of President Trump’s plan to force the American government to fund a wall along the Mexican border.

The USDA reported that it only has enough leftover money to pay for January’s benefits, and its reserve funds do not cover the total projected cost for February. A report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that 42 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2017, 44 percent of whom were part of working families.

Other food programs, such as the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) are also in serious danger of losing funding. Staffing for federal food and nutrition services has been cut by 95 percent since the shutdown began.

Starvation hasn’t been a public health problem since the food stamp program was expanded in the 1960s and 1970s, but, according to reports, if this shutdown continues for months or even a year as President Trump said on Friday, that problem could return.

Even if the shutdown standoff somehow before the remaining funding is used up, SNAP recipients are still in danger of losing benefits from the federal government.

A proposal by the Trump Administration would force states like Pennsylvania to stop waiving work requirements for able-bodied adults.  This could impact nearly 100,000 commonwealth residents, according to reports.

Federal rules allow able-bodied adults without work to continue collecting benefits if they live in an area where work is scarce. In late December, the USDA announced plans to tighten these requirements. Only people living in areas with unemployment rates above 7 percent would be exempt from these restrictions.

In October, Forest County’s unemployment rate was 6.4 percent, and 19 additional Pennsylvania counties --- Cambria, Carbon, Clarion, Clearfield, Clinton, Fayette, Greene, Huntingdon, Indiana, Lawrence, Luzerne, Monroe, Northumberland, Philadelphia, Pike, Potter, Schuylkill, Somerset and Tioga --- had unemployment rates between 5 and 6 percent.

Even though a number were dangerously close, none of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties met the 7 percent threshold, meaning the entire state of Pennsylvania would be affected by these restrictions, and that could affect 95,788 Pennsylvanians, according to the Department of Human Services. 

Because of the government shutdown, it is unclear when these restrictions could go into effect. If the shutdown ends and the SNAP program funding resumes, recipients could end up losing benefits regardless because of these requirements.

Governor Tom Wolf has worked to uphold the current work requirement waivers.

A state DHS spokesperson recently commented on the restrictions: “Reducing a person’s access to food does not get them a job—it can only make that more difficult.  Many of these people experience barriers to work such as a lack of family-supporting jobs in their community, transportation access, insufficient education or job training, mental illness and substance use disorders, among others.”

Proponents of work requirements claims programs like SNAP keep Pennsylvanians from working. And that cutting off food assistance to people who aren’t working enough to fully support a family will save taxpayer money. They’re wrong on both accounts.

One in seven Pennsylvanians currently use SNAP, which keeps food on the table for thousands of low-wage and part-time workers who can’t find steady employment, veterans, people who are homeless, and people struggling with addictions, in addition to children, seniors, and people with disabilities. The average monthly SNAP benefit totals just $120 per person, or just $1.34 per meal.

Study after study finds that when people have access to help that puts food on the table and provides health care, they are better able to work and have higher earnings, which is better for our entire commonwealth. No one should go hungry, especially when we have the resources to keep that from happening.

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