A change in the way the federal government administers food aid under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could see thousands of Ohioans lose those benefits, some critics say.
But federal officials say the change could streamline the program and cut down on wasteful spending and make aid programs more consistent from state to state.
In July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture presented a proposal that would end automatic SNAP eligibility for those receiving Temporary Aid for Needy Families (TANF). Lawmakers in Congress have voted against legislation decoupling assistance programs in the last two farm bills, but USDA officials would like to change the department's policies internally.
The change, if implemented, would mean that families who are eligible for TANF would need to reapply separately for SNAP, commonly known as food stamps. That's onerous for many time-constrained families in which adults are working multiple jobs.
“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wrote in a USDA news release about the rule change proposal. "Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint."
The USDA's news release highlighted a case in which a Minnesota millionaire named Rob Undersander enrolled in SNAP benefits for 18 months to show that the program has flaws. Eligibility for SNAP in Minnesota considers only income, not wealth, and thus Undersander claims he was able to apply for and receive benefits for 18 months. His situation did not involve TANF, however, and Undersander revealed his SNAP enrollment to support a Minnesota bill that would tie benefits to asset limits.
Generally, the government's food assistance programs have among the lowest rates of abuse of any federal program — less than 1 percent of food stamp payments go to those who are not eligible for the program, the federal government says.
The new rule could affect between 37,000 and 100,000 people in Ohio, according to an estimate by left-leaning think tank Policy Matters Ohio. That has implications not only for fighting hunger but also for Ohio's economy, critics of the proposed rule say.
"SNAP doesn't just put food on the table," the Ohio Association of Foodbanks tweeted in response to the proposed change. "It also generates revenue for local grocery stores, creating and maintaining jobs & income tax revenue for local governments. It should be as easy as possible for people who need SNAP to get it."
If some Ohioans lose their SNAP benefits, their children's school lunches could also be affected. One way children qualify for free and reduced lunch at public schools is via their family's enrollment in the SNAP program.
Nationally, as many as 3 million people could lose SNAP eligibility due to the rule change, and some 500,000 children could lose access to free and reduced school meals. But federal officials supportive of the USDA rule change say those children could gain eligibility for those programs via other means.
Anti-hunger groups aren't the only ones opposing the proposal. The U.S. Conference of Mayors Aug. 21 issued a letter signed by 70 city leaders, including Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, criticizing the rule change proposal.
"As Mayors, we serve as the CEOs of the nation’s cities; and remain most concerned about any proposal that will reduce improvements to the health of our residents, weaken nutrition programs, deteriorate advances to healthy food access, and spur declines in local and regional economies,” the letter reads.
The USDA is taking public comment on the proposal until Sept. 23.