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Gov. Wolf bashes plan to end food stamp exception

USDA proposed after millionaire obtained benefit

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf came out strongly Monday against a proposed move by the Trump administration to limit the ability of states to bypass rules on income limits for food stamps.

The federal Department of Agriculture last week put forth a proposal to end a practice in which some people who make more than 130 percent of the poverty level could still receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps. Individuals who were eligible for another form of welfare, the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), could automatically qualify for food stamps.

Including Pennsylvania, 43 states make use of “categorical eligibility” to allow people who earn too much to still qualify for food stamps. The rule change would require otherwise ineligible applicants to actually receive $50 in TANF benefits for six months to qualify for food stamps.

“This proposed change to SNAP benefits is punishment for working families across America,” Wolf, a second-term Democrat, said in a news releaseMonday. “I oppose this ludicrous change that will hurt tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians, creating an undue burden and more food insecurity for families, older Pennsylvanians and people with disabilities who already struggle to put food on the table.”

According to the Wolf administration, of the 1.7 million people in Pennsylvania who rely on food stamps, about 200,000 could stand to lose the benefit as a result of the federal change if it goes into effect.

But the USDA said too many people who don't need the benefit were using loopholes to game the system.

"The proposed rule would fix a loophole that has expanded SNAP recipients in some states to include people who receive assistance when they clearly don't need it,” a USDA release stated. “In fact, the depth of this specific flexibility has become so egregious that a millionaire living in Minnesota successfully enrolled in the program simply to highlight the waste of taxpayer money."

The Minnesota millionaire, Ron Undersander, demonstrated last year how easy it was to sign up for and receive SNAP benefits because of the exception no matter how much an individual is worth.

But Wolf and his administration said the change would hurt those who need food stamps.

“The Trump Administration’s proposed rule targets needy families by restricting their ability to get SNAP benefits and will, quite simply, create more hungry families,” Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said. “Eliminating Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility will force families to choose between putting food on their table or covering childcare, rent, or other basic needs. This is unconscionable.”

Miller has been a staunch supporter of food stamps in Pennsylvania, strongly opposed efforts to tie benefits to work requirements and indicated that the Wolf administration would like to see their use grow rather than shrink.

“I would argue that we want everyone that can possibly be on SNAP to be on SNAP,” Miller told a panel of lawmakers in the spring of 2018. “It’s a 100 percent federally funded benefit, and we know that individuals who are on SNAP have better health outcomes and spend less in terms of health care dollars.”

Republican lawmakers in Harrisburg have argued that work requirements for food stamps would create an incentive for beneficiaries capable of working to escape a cycle of government dependency.

As for the federal rule change proposal, the Trump administration has said that it could save $2.5 billion in federal spending each year. But Wolf suggested that it would have negative economic effects as well.

“The rule has ramifications beyond food security,” he said. “Pennsylvania retailers rely on the money SNAP recipients spend and reducing the number of people able to use these benefits in Pennsylvania will have a significant economic impact. In addition, when people receive proper nutrition, they remain healthier and spend less on health care. Depriving people of the means for adequate sustenance and a healthier life is cruel and inhumane.”

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