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Congress | State Government

SNAP rule changes could boot thousands in Nevada off food stamp program

Vikki Von wears a festive sweater while packing bags for the BackPack for Kids program at Three Square in Las Vegas on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. The program provides at-risk students with food for weekends and longer breaks when they wouldn't have access to school-provided meals. (Daniel Clark/The Nevada Independent)

A finalized rule change by the Trump administration to tighten up work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could boot up to 32,000 Nevadans off the food assistance program.

The rule change, announced last week by the federal Department of Agriculture, takes aim at work requirement waivers for a population of so-called “Able Bodied Adult Without Dependents (ABAWD),” or people between the ages of 18 and 49 who are not disabled and don’t have dependents.

The proposed rule change would kick an estimated 688,000 adults off the nutrition assistance program and would save the federal government an estimated $5 billion over five years, but has drawn sharp criticism from Nevada leaders who say it would increase hunger and harm the state’s poorest residents.

In a statement, Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak said that the proposed rule changes were “unconscionable” and said its results would be “devastating” to low-income Nevadans.

“While we appreciate the issuance of a temporary waiver, the Administration’s rule changes, both final and proposed, have created uncertainty for the states, and I will be working with DHHS (Department of Health and Human Services) to determine next steps on how to address the increased hardship and hunger that will be created by taking away low-income families’ basic food assistance,” he said in a statement on Friday.

According to the most recent figures by the state’s Division of Welfare and Supportive Services, roughly 421,000 people in the state were receiving benefits through SNAP, an average of $116 per person or roughly $48.9 million per month. Although the number of SNAP cases is down compared to the peak in the 2018 fiscal year, the state’s number of SNAP cases remains significantly higher (118 percent) than it did at the “end” of the great recession in 2009.

Benefits through SNAP — formerly known as the Food Stamp program until 2008 — are fully funded by the federal government, with the administrative costs split between the federal government and the state. SNAP eligibility typically requires applicants to be at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty level — roughly $27,700 a year for a family of three. 

The rise and perennially high number of Nevadans on SNAP is for several reasons — the state’s process to enroll more people under the federal Medicaid expansion includes an application checking an individual’s viability for other welfare programs, so the number of SNAP enrollees went up as more people applied for Medicaid. But the SNAP population has also remained high because the state continues to get federal waivers for its ABAWD population.

Under the 1996 federal welfare legislation, people in the ABAWD category are generally limited to just three months of SNAP benefits over every three-year period, but states are allowed to request a temporary waiver from those requirements in certain geographical areas experiencing persistently high unemployment.

Sans waiver, that ABAWD population receive limited benefits unless they meet additional work requirements — working or training for at least 80 hours a month, participate in “qualifying” education and training activities for at least 80 hours per month or comply with an unpaid work program through the state.

But the Trump administration’s finalized SNAP rule sets stricter limits on the ability of states to issue those waivers, creating stricter definitions that only allow ABAWD waivers to be issued in states with unemployment above 10 percent or does not have a sufficient number of jobs available. 

“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement announcing the finalized rule.

Department of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Julie Balderson said the state opposed the finalized rule through submitting comments as part of the American Public Human Services Association. A state law approved in 2017 requires the Department of Health and Human Services to request any and all SNAP-related waivers and sets priorities for certain populations including caregivers and recently-discharged veterans to continue to receive waivers from work requirements (confusingly, the food stamp law allows for up to 15 percent of the ABAWD population to be exempted, even if the statewide waiver is taken away).

Barring any sort of legal challenge or stop to the rule, the state’s current ABAWD waiver — which covers every county outside of Washoe — a recently approved extension means that the waiver will expire at the end of March 2020, at which point up to 32,000 people will begin transitioning off the food stamp program.

Based on the results in Washoe County’s loss of its ABAWD waiver, Balderson said the number of people statewide who would lose their SNAP benefits under the new rule change could be as low as 24,500.

The finalized ABAWD rule change is one of several ways that the Trump administration has moved to tighten up rules for SNAP eligibility, including pushing for a rule that would potentially disqualify 46,000 people with incomes slightly higher than the SNAP limits of the program. 

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