Food Bank of the Southern Tier opposes Trump administration changes

ALBANY — Local food banks are bracing for more business after the Trump administration announced changes to the federal Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that will end benefits for hundreds of thousands of people ages 18-49 who don't have kids.


Officials across the nation have called the changes in what people think of as food stamps — which Congress rejected in last year's Farm Bill — a failure in policy.


"When government programs fail, it's nonprofit programs like People to People who pick up the slack," said Diane Serratore, CEO of People to People, Rockland's primary hunger relief organization. "It really shouldn't be our responsibility to do the government's job."


The SNAP change may not seem that significant — on paper the rules are similar for so-called "able-bodied" adults ages 18 to 49 who don't have kids. They are already mandated to work at least 20 hours a week to get SNAP. If they don't, they are technically limited to just three months of SNAP benefits every three years.


But states currently can — and often do — waive the work rules under certain circumstances. Four of the six counties in the Food Bank of the Southern Tier’s service area currently have waivers – Broome, Chemung, Schuyler, and Steuben counties.


The new rules restrict when those waivers can be granted.


Natasha R. Thompson, President and CEO, of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier, issued a statement contending that the new SNAP rule will take food away from people struggling to find and keep work.


“The new rule issued by USDA arbitrarily and unnecessarily limits New York State’s ability to define and seek waivers for areas of high unemployment,” Thompson said. “By eliminating most waivers in the state, as many as 107,000 people will be newly subject to the time-limit and will ultimately take food assistance away from those who are struggling to find work, while providing no support or enhancement for employment training or placement.”


'Less money to pay rent'


The change will affect about 700,000 people nationwide. Albany-based Hunger Solutions New York estimates that some 107,000 New Yorkers will be impacted.


Hunger New York Executive Director Linda Bopp said the change "will cause serious harm to individuals, communities, and the nation while doing nothing to improve the health and employment of those impacted."


Cuts to SNAP will have a ripple effect, State Sen. David Carlucci said.


"That's less money to pay rent, utility bills, prescription costs."


Gordon found it disconcerting that the federal government would make this announcement this month.


"USDA’s rule means that during this holiday season there will be people who are unemployed or underemployed who will be wondering how they’ll be able to put food on the table in the new year," she said.


The rule is scheduled to go into effect in April 2020, with the Food Bank of the Southern Tier bracing for the worst.


“If the rule is implemented, the Southern Tier and New York State would see higher rates of hunger and poverty,” Thompson said. “It will cause serious harm to individuals, communities, and the nation while doing nothing to improve the health and employment of those impacted by the rule.”


'Restore the dignity of work'


U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that the SNAP reforms would be taken "in order to restore the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population and be respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program." About 36 million Americans rely on SNAP.


But People to People's Allen said that the cuts aren't partnered with any expanded federal initiatives that would ensure people the ability to work. "There's no added job training connected to this," Allen said. The current job market demands very specific skills to secure employment that offers steady hours and a livable wage, Allen said.


Plenty of hurdles to steady employment in Rockland exist, Serratore said. Patchy transportation, and jobs that are either seasonal or inconsistent, can lead some people to work less than 20 hours some weeks.


According to an official at USDA's Food Nutrition and Consumer Services, the change would save roughly $5.5 billion over five years.


The work rule is just the first of three anticipated changes to the way SNAP will be granted. Other anticipated changes include:


Families could no longer be automatically enrolled in SNAP when they receive other forms of federal aid, and states could change the requirements for families to get SNAP.


Applications for food stamps would no longer allow deductions for the cost of housing and utilities. Family size, citizenship status, household income, and certain expenses are considered in calculations to determine SNAP qualifications.


Local economy, stores boosted


Officials from People to People and Hunger New York pointed out that SNAP benefits bolster the local economy, too, benefiting stores and agricultural producers.


For example the average SNAP benefit is about $170 a month for Westchester and $110 for Rockland, nonprofit leaders said.


In the Southern Tier, Thompson said she expects the changes to have a negative impact on the economy.


"It will harm the economy, grocery retailers, agricultural producers, and communities by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur local economic activity,” she said.


Carlucci said the federal government may classify a person as having no dependents, but they may take care of older parents or disabled family members, which could limit their ability to work many hours in a week.


People to People supplies food to about 4,000 individuals monthly, or about 1,400 households. Serratore said that the numbers soared after the Great Recession, and she expects an uptick come spring.


While People to People is grateful for community collections and Carlucci's efforts, "food drives can only go so far," Allen said. "The community tends to lose sight that 30 to 40,000 people don't know where their next meal is coming from."


In Rockland County, 40,000 people live below the poverty line, and about 89,000 in Westchester.


"The economy is not going well for everyone," Carlucci said.