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How Potential SNAP Benefit Changes Could Affect East Tennessee

Richard Graulich, Palm Beach Post

  What exactly are the changes proposed for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- and what do they mean?


SNAP helps 40 million Americans buy food for themselves and their families. The program is still often referred to as food stamps, although those enrolled these days are provided electronic transfer cards instead. Prior to last week’s election, the Republican-controlled House had been trying to overhaul the program.


Able-bodied adults aged 18 to 49 who have no dependents can already only receive food stamps for three months over three years – unless they work or participate in job training for 20 hours every week. The House proposal, which has had little traction in the Senate so far, would extend that work requirement to adults another decade older. And an existing work exemption for parents would be eliminated for those with kids older than six.


The bill would also increase work requirements for those leaving prison and expand the list of convictions that would trigger a lifetime ban on food stamp benefits.


Under proposed new penalties, failing to report the required hours just once would cause a family to lose its food stamps for a year. After a second time, eligibility would be stripped for three years.


Jennifer Russomanno, who is researching food access for the poor as part of her doctoral work in public health at the University of Tennessee, argues that this kind of work requirement would simply force people into lower-wage jobs while robbing them of time to apply to better ones. For example, she said, if someone is laid off from a job earning $40,000 a year but must take a minimum-wage job to avoid losing food stamps, his need for help from the government will continue. Letting him hold out for a better-paying job could restore his family to full financial independence – saving taxpayer money in the long run.


Categorical eligibility


Another change would reduce the number of people who automatically qualify for food stamps through “categorical eligibility” programs developed by states. These programs help ease the transition from government assistance to independence by avoiding a “benefit cliff:” a situation in which getting a better job means losing food stamps or housing subsidies before the family actually earns enough to afford the full cost of those basic needs.


The benefit cliff actually encourages people not to better themselves, said Barbara Kelly, executive director of the Knoxville-Knox County Community Action Committee, which administers programs that assist the poor.


If the family loses more in SNAP than they gain from a parent’s promotion, she said, “in the end they are working harder to put less food on the table.”


The Congressional Budget Office estimates 400,000 households would lose SNAP benefits through the changes to categorical eligibility -- which would also cause about 265,000 children in those households to lose access to free school meals.


Effects for seniors


Children and families aren't the only groups that would likely lose their eligibility, though.

Extending the work requirement to age 60 would likely push more older people into applying for disability payments from the government, said Alice Allen, SNAP coordinator for the Office on Aging. Many of these older recipients have undisclosed disabilities that cause them to shift in and out of the workforce over time, she said. If they give up and apply for disability instead, that will cost taxpayers more than food stamps.


Food stamps are a key support because they free money to pay other bills. “A lot of our seniors are saving their money for medicine because it's so expensive,” Allen said.


Benefits for former prisoners


The House proposal would increase the number of crimes that cause former prisoners to lose their food stamp eligibility. Currently in Tennessee, people who committed certain drug crimes since 1996 may be in this situation if they don't meet the requirements of their parole or complete drug counseling. Ex-prisoners must also register to work, must accept a job if offered one, and can't quit. Even with these restrictions, many people who have served long prison terms can receive a small amount of food stamps – generally between $15 and $98 a month – as they try to re-establish independence after their release.


“It is something to make sure that they can eat, if they're out on the streets,” said Keira Wyatt, director of C.O.N.N.E.C.T. Ministries, a Knoxville non-profit that helps ex-convicts and other disadvantaged people. “Especially for those men who are just dumped at the shelters when they get out and they have no support system.”


Wyatt said former felons are already barred from public housing and struggle to find an apartment or a job because many lack a driver's license or ID. Losing food stamps would likely become just another of the barriers that lead many to return to crime because it's easier to go back to prison. She noted that recidivism rates are already high in Tennessee, with 77 percent of offenders returning to jail within three years.


“I think this cut is a diversion... to make ex-offenders the bad guy,” Wyatt said. “I don't understand why they would want to take away from this population when they've taken so much else.”


Job training


To help recipients meet some of the new requirements, the House bill would expand funding for job training from $110 annually to $270 million in 2020, with a further increase to $1 billion each year afterward.


But the Congressional Budget Office predicted that states won't have enough training opportunities available by the time the law takes effect in 2021. In fact, the CBO predicts that even by 2028, states will only be able to provide training to 80 percent of those eligible.

Both training and tracking compliance will fall to the states and pump up administrative costs. Despite shedding millions of people from SNAP rolls, the proposed changes would increase total SNAP expenses by $900 million between 2019 and 2028, the Congressional Budget Office concluded.


Daniel Watson is executive director of Restoration House, a non-profit that helps single-parent families become stable and independent, often after a crisis. For up to three years, families pay 30 percent of their income toward rent and utilities in a neighborhood built by Restoration House, while parents pursue education. Watson said most of the families start on food stamps, but end up not needing them. In fact, all the program's graduates are still working seven years later, and 88 percent can meet all their housing and food needs with no government support, Watson said.


He says the SNAP program is a key component in helping families improve their overall economic situation. But it works partly because they are pursuing a higher degree full-time, rather than working part-time while attending school in fits and starts.


The Complexity of Poverty in East Tennessee


Overall, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that 62 percent of those who would lose food stamps over the work requirement would be adults in households with children older than 6.


Requiring parents whose kids are in school to work part-time may sound reasonable, until you consider what jobs they can get, Kelly said.


“These are not 9-to-5 jobs,” she said. “They'll be working the least desirable shifts because they're just coming into the workforce.” That means closing restaurants at 11 p.m. or opening at 5 a.m. – not times when child care is available for young kids left at home.


“Kids may have competed kindergarten but are not able to care for themselves,” Kelly said, “and affordable child care is not something that is readily available in our community.”


Even if the parent has a day job, the “one-strike” policy on meeting a target number of hours could be devastating, she said. Many of these parents work shifts in restaurants or retail; an employer reducing their hours or changing their shifts could cause them to lose food stamps for a year.


Watson said parents also lose jobs for having to stay home with a sick child. “The reality is for folks who are living in a low-income situation, especially single parents -- there's so much of 'the tyranny of the now,'” Watson said. “If the slightest crisis comes up, like blowing a tire one morning, it can ruin the whole thing. What may not seem like a crisis to you and I can be a real crisis in that family – not for lack of drive and desire, but because they just can't connect the pieces at that moment.”


In East Tennessee's mountains, those challenges can be even more acute.


Audrey Jones is executive director of Sunset Gap, which provides food boxes, hot meals and clothing to families in Cocke and Sevier counties. The century-old non-profit even sends food home in children's backpacks each weekend, because the kids rely on free school meals for most of their diet.


Jones said many of her clients live in places with little child care and few employers, so expanded work requirements for food stamps might not be achievable at all.


Most people served by her century-old charity work seasonal jobs in Sevierville, she said. Their income may be enough to get by, but it isn't regular. They earn more during the tourist rush to tide them over during the winter, when they'd be unable to find 20 hours of work a week.


On top of that, many live deep in the mountains where roads are often blocked by snow and ice in winter -- making transportation to jobs 30 miles away even more difficult and expensive.

Jones, who grew up in Bridgeport in a family that sometimes relied on food stamps, anticipates that Sunset Gap might struggle to meet local demand for assistance if food stamp requirements become more stringent.


“We serve a lot of people in the Appalachian area that are on food stamps and cannot survive on food stamps,” she said.