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Some States Would Gain, Others Lose Under Proposed Changes to SNAP

SNAP recipients may seek more help from food pantries if their benefits are reduced.
Esther Honig
Harvest Public Media file photo
SNAP recipients may seek more help from food pantries if their benefits are reduced.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed three changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) this year. They affect the employment requirements for adults without dependents who are able to work, whether participation in certain other programs automatically qualifies a person for SNAP and, most recently, how the standard utility deduction is taken in calculating a household’s income.

For the last one, USDA will accept public comments through Dec. 2. Comment periods on the other two have already closed. 

In an analysis of the three proposals, the non-profit Urban Institute found if they’d been in place in 2018, annual SNAP benefits would have been $4.2 billion less than they were. The utility rule alone would have accounted for a decrease of nearly $800 million in SNAP benefits. 

But the impacts would not have been even across all states or all recipient groups. 

“It will disadvantage some states,” said Helen Jensen, emeritus economics professor at Iowa State University. “They look at what they think are standards of living that are needed in their own context and make adjustments in the way that they administer the SNAP program. From that perspective, it won’t have a neutral effect.” 

She said for administrative purposes, the utility change may make things easier but it reduces some of the autonomy states have had in implementing the SNAP program. 

The Urban Institute analysis found the utility rule change would have reduced SNAP participation and benefits in Iowa and Nebraska while Illinois and Missouri would have seen increases. 

The proposals come at a time when some communities are seeing an increase in demand for food assistance. Among the public comments on the utility rule was this one from Poweshiek County in central Iowa: 

We've never bounced back from the Great Recession. The food shelf here now allows families to get 2 boxes of food per month instead of the previous one box per month. In light of all this, I think this is a VERY poor time to consider cutting food stamps. 

If recipients see reductions in their federal benefits, they may turn to food pantries for more support. 

“They have to pull those resources from somewhere else,” said Abra Dougherty, family development partnership manager for Mid-Iowa Community Action, “so whether that means their income, using the food pantries more, changing their food menus at home, those kinds of things, it definitely does cause some anxiety for those families.”

Dougherty adds that a combination of increased demand and fewer donations is causing some shortages, especially for items like peanut butter that are particularly popular. 

“I have seen a little bit of decrease in being able to keep our shelves full,” she said, “and that’s been something in the last couple months we’ve noticed.” 

Dougherty is hopeful the holiday season will spark some additional donations. 

After the public comment period closes, USDA can revise its proposed rule and it must issue a final rule before any changes go into effect.

Follow Amy on Twitter:@AgAmyinAmes

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Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.