USDA / Flickr
The new plan could save $4.5 billion, while taking SNAP from 8,000 families.

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For the third time in 2019, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Program that are likely to suppress enrollment. The agency announced this week a proposal to cap allowable income deductions for utility expenses. The change is expected to take food stamps from up to 8,000 households and reduce payments for one in five families, though it is also projected to increase payments for 16 percent of families. 

It’s been a long year for SNAP policy changes. First, just before Christmas, the Trump administration announced it would tighten work requirements for program eligibility, a move that will impact an estimated 775,000 people by 2020. 

Then, over the summer, the USDA moved to “reform” a method used by 40 states to automatically allow families eligible for other federal aid to enroll in SNAP. This is projected to boot more than 3 million people from the program. 

In August, the Department of Homeland Security published a final version of a rule that instructs immigration officers to consider actual and potential use of the safety net—including SNAP—when processing green card applications. The rule is set to go into effect on October 15 if various legal challenges are unsuccessful, but some research indicates it has already driven immigrants from the SNAP rolls—long before it was ever officially announced. 

The new proposal would establish a nationwide standard for utilities deductions.
By comparison, the changes announced this week are relatively minor. SNAP benefits are calculated by subtracting a series of deductions from a family’s gross income. If a family’s expenses for shelter-related bills like rent and utilities exceed half their income after the other deductions are taken, the family is allowed to deduct some of those housing costs. It’s complicated, but the effect is that households who spend more of their paychecks on rent and heat and water can get a little more money from SNAP at the end of the day. 

It’s difficult to keep track of utilities expenses for every single household, so some states set a flat rate for utilities. These allowances range from less than $300 in Arkansas to more than $800 in Vermont. The new proposal would establish a nationwide standard for these utilities deductions. The math involves calculating the cost of the largest utility—the one that applies to heating and cooling—at the 80th percentile of low-income households’ utility costs in each state, then basing other utility calculations off that first number. 

This change is projected to save $4.5 billion over 10 years. The public comment period is open until December 2, 2019.

H. Claire Brown

Claire Brown is a staff writer for The New Food Economy focusing on food policy and the environment. Her reporting has won awards from the Newswomen’s Club of New York and the New York Press Club. She is based in Brooklyn. She can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @hclaire_brown.

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