A federal rule proposed last week could bar thousands of Oregonians from receiving food stamps.
The rule announced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would prevent people who receive benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program from automatically qualifying for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Forty-three states, including Oregon, currently permit automatic eligibility.
The Trump administration said the proposed change would close a loophole that allowed people who receive minimal TANF benefits and don’t need food stamps from receiving SNAP.
“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue.
The proposed change has caused a backlash from food security advocates nationwide and local and state elected officials in Oregon. Opponents said the change would increase food insecurity, particularly for children, harming vulnerable families who rely on SNAP.
A delegation of Oregon Democrats, including U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden and U.S. Reps. Peter DeFazio, Suzanne Bonamici, Earl Blumenauer and Kurt Schrader wrote a letter on Wednesday urging Perdue to withdraw the proposal.
“We are especially concerned about the number of Oregon children — many of whom receive their only meal of the day at school — who will lose access to free school meals,” the delegation wrote. “While the vast majority of these children may qualify for reduced-price meals, they will have to reapply for the program and bring lunch money in order to continue to eat at school. Because schools are reimbursed at a lower rate for children who participate in reduced-price meals, this change will also mean less money for schools.”
The administration estimates 3.1 million people nationwide would have their benefits revoked. Jennifer Grentz, a spokeswoman with the Oregon Department of Human Services said more than 66,000 Oregonians would lose their benefits.
DHS is still reviewing local numbers and doesn’t yet have an estimate of how many Douglas County residents would lose their benefits, or how many children would no longer receive a free lunch.
Almost 25,000 people in the county received SNAP benefits in June, including nearly 7,500 children, according to DHS statistics. At least 1,800 people in Douglas County received TANF benefits in June.
Fifteen percent of all residents and 25% of children in the county were considered food insecure, according to a June 2018 report by the Oregon Center for Public Policy using 2016 data from the Oregon Department of Human Services. Both percentages were higher than state averages.
Food insecurity is defined as people who said they struggled to put food on the table or didn’t know how they would get their next meal within the last three years.
More than 50% of children at each school district in the county qualify for free and reduced lunches, according to 2013 report by Douglas County nonprofits. In some school districts, more than 80% of students qualify.
The Oregon Food Bank argued on its website that the proposed change would also hurt local economies.
“Each federal dollar that comes to Oregon through SNAP benefits creates $1.79 in economic activity,” the organization wrote.
United Community Action Network Food Bank manager Sarah McGregor said if the proposed rule goes into effect, Douglas County should expect the number of people who are food insecure to increase. She added more people will likely need to access the food bank.
“I’m a little appalled by this change,” McGregor said. “What we all know in the emergency food work is that SNAP is the most effective tool in the fight against hunger. It’s the first line of defense for people when they are hungry.”
This isn’t the first time the Trump administration tried to reduce the number of people receiving SNAP. Last December, the administration proposed the same change to Congress, but it was rejected.
McGregor said she’s not surprised by the proposal. She said the national conversation around entitlements often stigmatizes people who receive SNAP as unwilling to work hard to provide for themselves and their families.
“Low-income individuals are stigmatized all the time and made out to seem like they’re cheating the system, but it takes a lot to swallow your dignity enough to go and apply for assistance,” McGregor said. “It’s not an easy thing. I don’t know how many people have tried to have the experience of going to DHS to talk to a caseworker about your family’s income ... and to share with someone and feel like you’re maybe doing what you can for your kids. That is not a good feeling.”
There’s a handful of people in every situation that try to cheat the system, but that doesn’t represent the vast majority of people who would be affected by the change, she said.
“It’s very frustrating because we’re trying to help feed people and we feel like we’re doing good work, and that we’re kind of moving the needle,” McGregor said. “Something like this would reverse the trend that we’ve seen.”
People have until Sept. 23 to submit comments to the USDA about the proposal.