By LISA EISENHAUER
The operators of St. Francis House Food Pantry are bracing for a surge in demand when a federal rule change takes effect April 1 that will cut off food assistance to hundreds of thousands of adults.
The food bank in Anchorage, Alaska, provides fresh and canned food to more than 15,000 people a year, including many working age adults with no dependents who stand to be cut from the rolls of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, popularly known as SNAP.
"We are expecting to see an increase and we’re worried," said Lisa Aquino, executive director of Catholic Social Services in Anchorage. The agency runs the food pantry with help from several supporters. A major one is Providence Health & Services Alaska.
Aquino said the worry isn’t so much about whether the food bank can meet the increased demand as it is about how people already struggling to meet their basic needs can go on without the federal assistance.
Patty Jacobus shops at the St. Francis House Food Pantry in Anchorage, Alaska. The pantry provides a three-day supply of food to anyone in need. The pantry is run by Catholic Social Services and gets funding from Providence Health & Services Alaska Courtesy of Catholic Social Services
SNAP benefits cover much more than the three-day supply of food that the pantry offers once a month to anyone who stops in. The loss of the federal benefits, Aquino said, will have "a negative impact for a lot of people that are living really close to the poverty line."
688,000 off the rolls
The rule change will end a waiver that has exempted Alaska and several other states with high unemployment rates or a lack of jobs from some of the rules on SNAP benefits for adults. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that ending the waivers will cut an estimated 688,000 nondisabled people age 18-49 who have no dependents from the rolls of SNAP, which in 2018 supported an estimated 40.3 million people. This adult population will only be able to access benefits for three months in a 36-period unless they have worked, volunteered or attended job training for 80 hours a month or 20 hours per week.
In January, the District of Columbia, New York City and 14 states filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in the District of Columbia aimed at blocking the rule change. Alaska is not among the plaintiffs.
In announcing the rule change in December, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said: "Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand."
Dwindling safety net
Some social services advocates see the change as part of a pattern to undercut the nation’s safety net for the poor. They point to other restrictions advanced by the Trump administration, including one that would keep immigrants from being granted permanent legal resident status if they rely on public benefits like Medicaid and food stamps.
Julie Bodnar, a policy adviser with the Office of Domestic Social Development of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the benefit cuts and disincentives "discouraging."
The USCCB, joined by Catholic Charities USA and National Council of the United States Society of St. Vincent de Paul, weighed in against the SNAP waiver withdrawal affecting nondisabled adults.
Their public statement urged the administration to "keep in mind that most food programs already are unable to meet the ongoing need for assistance. In addition, without more investment and resources, requiring individuals to participate in often already underfunded and ineffective state education and training programs will result in individuals losing access to food and making little progress to attain self-sufficiency."
Tyler Cornell, a nurse practitioner, talks with a patient at a downtown Baltimore clinic run by Health Care for the Homeless. Mercy Medical Center of Baltimore was a founding partner of the organization. The nonprofit’s services include an emergency food pantry.
Courtesy Health Care for the Homeless
Bodnar said ending the waiver program is projected to take $5.5 billion out of the food program over five years. While touted by the Trump administration as a savings, she pointed out that the loss of benefits will have a wide impact.
"There’s an economic multiplier effect to SNAP because this money’s been directly going into local businesses and it’s going to farmers that are producing the food, so it’s supporting those industries," Bodnar said.
The rule change affecting adults plus two other changes that have been proposed are jointly expected to push millions of people out of the SNAP program and trim billions of dollars in benefits.
Bodnar said that while the dignity of work is a tenet of Catholic social teaching, tying food aid to work requirements won’t make it any easier for unemployed adults to land jobs.
"We need more work and training programs to help people fulfill this requirement, but this rule doesn’t require states to provide more of that, it doesn’t give them resources to provide more," she said.
Trinity Health also submitted public comments opposing the proposed end of the waiver program. Tina M. Weatherwax Grant, vice president of public policy and advocacy, said the Livonia, Michigan-based health system is "deeply concerned that this new rule will negatively impact access to necessary food and nutrition assistance and that will result in poorer health outcomes and cause more chronic conditions."
Weatherwax Grant pointed out that studies have shown that food insecurity among working-age adults is associated with poorer diet quality and multiple chronic conditions, including hypertension, coronary heart disease, diabetes, kidney disease and poorer general mental health.
Working but not getting by
Kevin Lindamood is president and chief executive of Health Care for the Homeless, a Baltimore program that was founded in part by Baltimore’s Mercy Medical Center and gets continued support from the medical center’s staffers to meet the health care needs of the city’s homeless population.
Lindamood said that most of the adults who come to his nonprofit’s five sites for care are either working but making too little to cover the costs of necessities like food and shelter or searching for work and coming up short. Baltimore is in the part of Maryland that is covered by a waiver on the adult SNAP rules. Officials in Maryland have said they expect the rule change to push 30,000 residents off the program’s rolls. Maryland is part of the lawsuit challenging the rule change.
Policy changes that make it harder for people to get assistance with basic necessities "end up being counterproductive and keep the most vulnerable members of our community in a subsistence kind of existence and keep people from reintegrating into the broader community," Lindamood said.
He fears that the SNAP change will land hardest on those already on society’s margins, such as foster children age 18 and up transitioning to life on their own as adults and disabled people who haven’t been able to meet the paperwork requirements to qualify for federal disability benefits.
Even as the rule change was weeks away from taking effect, operators of food banks said they were unsure how hard the hit could be among their clients.
Lydia Kreil, manager of community health at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, California, said the food bank the hospital runs already serves many single adults. While she expects an upswing in demand among that population once the waiver program ends, Kreil said it is unclear how big the surge will be and whether the medical center, part of CommonSpirit Health’s Dignity Health, can get more support from its patchwork food supply that includes donations from businesses and government commodities.
"I’m really kind of anxious to see how this is going to roll out," Kreil said.
Video: The St. Francis House Food Pantry fights hunger in Anchorage, Alaska
Changes to SNAP eligibility rules
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has proposed several charges to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, including:
- End of waiver program that affected states with high unemployment or low numbers of available jobs. The exemption allowed nondisabled people age 18-49 with no dependents to keep their benefits even if they didn't meet the requirement of working or volunteering at least 20 hours a week. Expected to cut 688,000 from rolls and reduce benefits by $5.5 billion over five years. Set to take effect April 1.
- Revision in the methodology for calculating the standard utility allowance used to adjust the qualifying net income of households applying for SNAP benefits. Projected to mean an overall loss of $4.5 billion in benefits over five years. Proposed.
- Change in the categorical eligibility rule, by which people receiving benefits from other specified low-income assistance programs automatically qualify for SNAP. Could mean 3 million people would lose benefits. Proposed.
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