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Pennsylvania is opposing a move by the federal government that state officials say would limit access to food for 6,570 people in York County alone.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is looking to limit the number of people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Democrats across the country are up in arms. Gov. Tom Wolf and 16 other Democratic governors — including Andrew Cuomo of New York, Phil Murphy of New Jersey and Ned Lamont of Connecticut — signed a joint letter opposing the rule change to USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

"By changing the requirements to access SNAP, the Trump administration only perpetuates the cycle of poverty and inequity and creates more hungry families," said Teresa D. Miller, secretary for the state Department of Human Services, in a statement Monday.

USDA officials estimate the rule change would save $9.4 billion in net federal spending from 2019 to 2023.

The new rule would add eligibility restrictions to SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, for households that currently qualify because they receive cash or in-kind services from other federal programs.

This is known as broad-based categorical eligibility, and state officials estimate about 6,570 York County residents qualify for SNAP benefits because of it.

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and Pennsylvania's Democratic Congressional delegation issued a statement Sept. 24 demanding that the USDA reverse course and drop the proposed rule change.

"This proposal will hurt hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians, increase food insecurity among seniors, children, working families and individuals with disabilities and create an undue administrative burden on our state,” the delegation members stated.

To qualify for SNAP benefits directly, households must have a gross monthly income at or below 130% of the federal poverty level or a net monthly income at or below 100% of the federal poverty level.

For a family of four, that's a maximum of $2,720 in gross monthly income or $2,092 in net monthly income.

But states have flexibility to expand income limits under broad-based categorical eligibility.

If a household is already receiving cash or in-kind benefits through the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, the household can be considered "categorically eligible."

Under BBCE in Pennsylvania, the income limit to receive SNAP benefits increases to 200% of the federal poverty level for households with an elderly or disabled member age 60 or older and up to 160% for households without an elderly or disabled member.

The proposed rule change wouldn't eliminate broad-based categorical eligibility, but it would tighten the requirements to qualify.

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In an example included in the proposal, the USDA said that four states use Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program funds to print their benefit applications for SNAP, TANF and other assistance programs, though USDA officials didn't identify the states. 

Applications in those states are provided to anyone who requests one, regardless of their gross income, and once that household receives an application, the household is considered to have received a benefit through TANF and is therefore considered categorically eligible, USDA officials stated in the proposal.

"Conferring categorical eligibility in such cases compromises the integrity of SNAP by allowing households that did not undergo a financial eligibility determination before receiving TANF-funded benefits, to then be deemed categorically eligible to receive SNAP," the proposal states.

In its comments to the USDA, the state DHS and state Department of Education protested the following changes:

  • In order to qualify for SNAP benefits through broad-based categorical eligibility, a household would have to receive a TANF benefit valued at a minimum of $50 per month.
  • The household must have been receiving the TANF benefit for at least six months.
  • For noncash TANF benefits, the service or benefit must support the recipient's efforts to work, such as providing subsidized employment or childcare.

"The imposition of the proposed rule would revert food assistance income limits back to 130 percent for all household categories and reinstitute the resource test of $2,250 for households that do not have an elderly or disabled member and $3,500 for households with an elderly or disabled member," the state DHS and DOE wrote in the comments.

These restrictions will make it more difficult for needy Pennsylvania families who struggle to make ends meet but who don't qualify for SNAP, state officials said.

Miller said food banks and other community resources across the commonwealth have notified the state that they won't be able to close the gap for the estimated 200,000 people who would lose SNAP benefits under the proposal.

So far, there haven't been any discussions about pursuing a lawsuit against the federal government if the rule change were to be approved, Miller said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the correct spelling of U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue's name.

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