By Dawn Holden Woods
For the fourth time in the past three years, millions of vulnerable children and families who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, are being put at risk to face extreme food insecurity.
This time, consideration is being given to making a technical change to SNAP program regulations that will increase food insecurity for millions of desperately poor Americans. The proposal seeks to eliminate a regulation that defines “broad-based categorical eligibility” within the SNAP program.
Categorical eligibility is the method that the Department of Agriculture uses to determine who is financially eligible for food stamps.
Under the current federal rules, families with incomes at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, or who earn about $25,000 a year for a family of four, are automatically eligible for SNAP benefits, including food stamps for families and free school lunches for their children.
Because food prices vary widely among the states, current SNAP regulations also permit individual states to raise the level of eligibility higher than the baseline of 130 percent of the federal poverty level. Pennsylvania sets its eligibility maximum at 160 percent, or about $41,000 for a family of four.
New regulations will prohibit that flexibility for Pennsylvania, forcing out the families falling between 130 percent and 160 percent of the poverty level. More than 200,000 Pennsylvanian’s who currently qualify for food stamps at this level will be denied their food stamps and school lunch benefits.
There are assumptions being made that these families are seeking to “exploit” a “loophole” in the law.
Human service programs have been on the chopping block to reduce budget deficits ever since Congress implemented massive tax cuts in 2017.
The social safety net for vulnerable populations has lost tens of billions of dollars for important programs including SNAP, Medicaid and Medicare, WIC nutrition programs Section 8 housing and more.
Turning Points for Children, the largest social services organization in Philadelphia, and where I serve as CEO, is dedicated to supporting the families that rely on this safety net. We are frightened by the implications of these regulations and the added burden that will be placed on an already disadvantaged population.
Turning Points works primarily with very poor families, nearly 5,000 annually, that are involved with child welfare services.
Even with SNAP benefits, thousands of these and other families rely heavily on our two food pantries, one located in the Lower Northeast and the other in Southwest Philadelphia.
There is also a network of food banks and programs operated by other agencies throughout Philadelphia that are utilized by this population.
These programs exist because of the overwhelming evidence that children and families in impoverished communities simply do not have access to the quality of food and nutrition that many residents may take for granted.
SNAP benefits literally keep families alive, and a free school lunch is critical to provide children with the appropriate nutrition they need to last them through a long day of learning.
Cities such as Philadelphia – which for more than a decade has been the poorest of the nation’s ten largest cities with a “deep poverty” rate of 25 percent – suffer the most from federal policies such as this one.
As leaders in this community, we cannot afford to simply sit back and take a “wait and see” approach. These regulations will force our most vulnerable children and families to have to make new choices that will literally impact whether or not they can eat that day.
The law requires that the administration solicit comments from the public on policy changes such as this, and up until the deadline in September, close to 7,000 comments were submitted, almost all of them in opposition.
The next step is for Congress to consider the administration’s proposals in the budget negotiations for the new fiscal year.
It is critical that the voices of all of us who care that our neighbors not go hungry speak up now to your local member of Congress to demand that these cruel and inhumane policy changes be stopped in their tracks.
Dawn Holden Woods is the CEO of Turning Points for Children. She writes from Philadelphia.