A new rule announced Wednesday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will cut food benefits from an estimated 688,000 CalFresh recipients.
“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a statement Wednesday morning. “Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”
The new rule, Perdue said, encourages people to return to work.
“This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them,” he said.
The rule applies to those between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have dependents and are considered able-bodied. According to 2016 USDA statistics, there are around 4 million Americans who fall into that category.
The rule is set to take effect April 1, 2020.
In Humboldt County, there are 21,559 CalFresh recipients who depend on the benefits for regular meals. CalFresh, formerly referred to as food stamps, is the program that provides food benefits to low-income residents. At the federal level, the program is referred to as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
But it’s hard to determine how many of those would be affected by the new rule.
“We’ve had someone running numerous ad hoc reports to pull information on the specific demographics,” Humboldt County Department of Health and Human Services spokesperson Meriah Miracle wrote in an email to the Times-Standard. “… Turns out it would take days to put together and would require a few disclaimers. For example, someone between the ages 18-49 with no dependents might still qualify for CalFresh if they share food in a home with another adult who has a dependent. That number wouldn’t reflect actual eligibility.”
The agency is working with the state to iron out how to implement the new rule and what it means in local communities.
“We do know that any changes to program eligibility requirements impact both current recipients and future applicants,” DHHS Deputy Branch Director of Social Services Kelly Hampton said in a prepared statement. “We will continue to encourage people to apply for CalFresh and do everything we can to streamline the process of connecting people to benefits.”
Local food banks are worried the rule will put more strain on services.
“Anytime a proposal to cut nutrition assistance programs like SNAP are announced, (people) come to our doors looking for assistance,” said Heidi McHugh, the community education and outreach coordinator for Food for People.
Food for People feeds about 12,000 people each month in Humboldt County through its network of 17 food pantries that are located across the county. McHugh said implementing the new rule would “absolutely” mean more people would seek out food assistance from the nonprofit and “puts a strain on our resources.”
She added food drives can gather thousands and thousands of pounds for food that help feed the local community.
“It’s great that we can get additional donations,” McHugh said, “but it doesn’t address the needs of time and manpower to distribute the food.”
McHugh said being “able-bodied” under the new rule is not as simple as it sounds. The rule requires 20 or more hours per week to be eligible.
“It is too simplistic and misses the challenges that face unemployed, underemployed and persons with disabilities face,” she said. “The mandate to work 20 hours or more per week to be SNAP-eligible does not take into account that low-income workers often juggle irregular work schedules that may cause them to become ineligible.”
She added that 71% of respondents to a Food For People survey found they had “some form of part-time, seasonal, or occasional jobs.” She added that there are transportation barriers that many recipients report that impact an ability to get to work.
It’s notable that Humboldt County has historically low unemployment rates that typically fall around 3%. According to the Employment Development Department, in October the labor force was 64,100 residents or about half the county. Of those, 62,300 were working.
The new rule was criticized by at least one North Coast lawmaker.
“The Grinches in this administration are taking away food assistance at the holidays from those who need help,” U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman tweeted Wednesday afternoon. “Congress dropped this change to the food stamp program in the Farm bill last year, and Trump should drop it, too.”
Ruth Schneider can be reached at 707-441-0520.