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Two proposed changes to the nation’s largest food assistance program would make it harder for thousands of Southern Illinois residents to receive benefits.

The proposed rules — one announced in February, and another last week — seek to thin participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, by executive action. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, says they are seeking to close loopholes that some states have taken advantage of to extend benefits to people who would not qualify under the rule’s traditional eligibility guidelines.

But advocates say the changes are particularly harsh toward young adults without children who are struggling to maintain consistent work, as well as working families and retirees with modest savings. They also note that Congress debated, and ultimately rejected, including these changes in the 2018 farm bill that it passed late last year. 

The Southern Illinoisan reported last week that, per capita, few other areas of the state rely on SNAP to the degree families do across Illinois’ lower counties. In many Southern Illinois counties, including Jackson and Union, upward of 20% of people benefit from SNAP. In Alexander and Pulaski counties, it’s an even greater percentage of residents.

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s administration is also sounding alarms about the proposals. A spokesman for the Department of Human Services said Friday that thousands of impoverished Illinois residents could face additional barriers to qualifying for SNAP, as well as delays in the processing of their applications, if the rules go through as proposed. An analysis by the Chicago Tribune published last week estimated that as many as 77,000 Illinoisans could lose benefits. 

The new regulations proposed by USDA on Tuesday target a policy that allows states to consider some families with incomes slightly above the federal eligibility guidelines for enrollment in SNAP. The vast majority of states utilize a two-decades-old option that allows them to qualify families for SNAP enrollment is they are receiving noncash benefits from another federal program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

For instance, traditional eligibility guidelines require that a family has gross earnings at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. That’s about $28,000 for a family of three.

Illinois’ policy is to consider families with gross earnings of up to 165% of the federal poverty level for SNAP enrollment. That means a family of three could earn up to about $35,200 and still potentially qualify for SNAP benefits under a policy that's known as broad-based categorical eligibility. 

They still must show that their net income, after allowable deductions for things like medical bills, child care and burdensome rent, is at or below the federal poverty level of $21,330 for a family of three.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a press conference last week that the agency believes states are taking advantage of the policy by automatically qualifying people for SNAP who receive only nominal TANF benefits, such as a brochure listing social service agencies and hotline numbers. The proposed rule would limit categorical eligibility to those receiving TANF benefits valued at a minimum of $50 for six months in limited services, namely those supporting child care and employment.

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The USDA says the proposal would save billions of dollars, and ensure benefits go to those most in need with consistency across the states. “Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” Perdue said.

The department estimates that about 8% of SNAP participants, or 3.1 million people, would lose benefits nationwide. It estimates a cost savings of $2.5 billion annually.

The rule stands to disproportionately affect low-wage workers with children, said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank. “These are the kinds of families the administration is saying it’s important to work with, but many will lose benefits, and we expect food insecurity to go up,” she said.

Editorial: Proposed SNAP rule will harm Southern Illinoisans, with little economic savings

As the proposed rule would add new administrative burdens for states, it also could “reverse the immense progress Illinois has recently made in processing SNAP applications in a timely manner,” Patrick Laughlin, a spokesman for the Illinois Department of Human Services, said in an emailed statement to The Southern.

More than 1.7 million people receive SNAP benefits in Illinois. The vast majority of them, in addition to new SNAP applicants, would face additional scrutiny at each application and recertification of their eligibility, Laughlin said. Illinois is subject to a federal “corrective action plan” to reduce processing times for SNAP applicants and has made significant progress toward mandated goals.

In addition to the regulatory changes proposed last week, the USDA announced in February its intent to rein in benefits to people who are considered able-bodied adults, those without a documented disability who are under 50 and without children. Federal law generally requires that these individuals work, volunteer or participate in job-training activities for at least 80 hours monthly to receive continuous SNAP benefits. Those who don’t meet the requirements are limited to three months within a three-year period, unless they live in a high unemployment area. These are areas for which states have sought waivers to the work mandate from the federal government. 

The USDA says states also have taken advantage of this option by lumping areas with low unemployment in with higher unemployment areas in order to meet the required threshold for a broad area. For instance, all of Illinois, with the exception of DuPage County, is exempt from the federal work requirement. The USDA wants to limit states' waiver requests to smaller geographic areas. Under the proposed rule, most of Illinois would no longer qualify for the exemption. Some 161,000 Illinoisans who are considered able-bodied adults without dependents would face additional requirements in order to qualify, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services.

“Many face serious barriers to employment, such as mental illness, substance abuse disorders, justice involvement and significant physical limitations, and would not be able to immediately meet the work requirement,” Laughlin said. The Prizker administration opposes the proposed rule. Some people have disabilities that are undiagnosed or that limit job options even if they are unable to qualify for or uninterested in seeking federal disabled status, advocates say.

Illinois is one of seven states that have waivers covering all or most of their state. According to an analysis by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Mathematica, 77% of Illinois’ SNAP beneficiaries who are considered able-bodied adults without dependents do not meet the 80-hour monthly work requirement. That’s a greater percentage than in any other state.

Laughlin said the state recognizes that some of these SNAP beneficiaries can and do want to work. “To that end, IDHS has been coordinated with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to determine how to improve work options for this population,” Laughlin said. But advocates worry that swiftly kicking people off the program will make it even harder for them to stabilize their lives and enter the workforce.

According to an analysis by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, only four counties in the state would meet the proposed restricted waiver guidelines. They are all in Southern Illinois — Alexander, Hardin, Johnson and Pulaski. That’s an estimate based on 2017 and 2018 unemployment numbers, and subject to change based on current data when and if the proposed rule goes into effect, according to a spokesman for the organization.

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molly.parker@thesouthern.com

618-351-5079

On Twitter: @MollyParkerSI ​

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