By Tatiana Parafiniuk-Talesnick

The (Eugene) Register-Guard

Tens of thousands of Oregonians could lose their food stamp benefits if a proposed federal rule change that specifies eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is approved. The comment period ends Monday.

The rule forces applicants to enroll in SNAP, commonly referred to as food stamps or the Oregon Trail Card, separately from other state-regulated benefits and would make it harder to meet the income and asset requirements as set by the federal government and not the state.

Oregon’s Department of Human Services estimates the proposed rule change would result in the loss of benefits for 66,000 individuals, or 34,990 households in the state, but data-driven policy group Mathematica provided numbers for the U.S. Department of Agriculture that estimate 119,495 Oregon individuals, or 66,622 households, would lose their benefits.

“The most obvious impact that we would expect to see is just more people who are living on the edge turning to the emergency food pantry network,” said Tom Mulhern, executive director of FOOD for Lane County.

“It sounds fine in practice, but in reality, what it does is that it just increases the administrative costs, because the agency, in this case the Oregon Department of Human Services, has to screen all of those applicants.”

Presently, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and maintenance of effort, or MOE, recipients in Oregon, are automatically eligible for SNAP and can have an income 185% above the poverty line and no limits on their asset value. Under the proposed rule, people with an income more than 130% above the federal poverty line, around $16,000 a person or more than $2,250 in assets, would no longer qualify to receive federal food benefits.

The proposed change affects each state differently — 42 states use broad-based categorical eligibility, a policy that makes most households eligible for SNAP when they qualify for noncash TANF or state MOE-funded benefit. The rule would force states to separately screen eligibility for different benefit programs.

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny ­Perdue in a USDA release. “Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint.”

Most states extend categorical eligibility to people who have not been separately screened for SNAP eligibility. The federal administration argues this compromises program integrity and weakens public confidence that benefits are being provided to eligible households, according to the proposed rule on the USDA’s website.

But Oregon food security activists argue the federal measure of need doesn’t add up.

“It’s a bit of a travesty,” said Noreen Dunnells, president and CEO of United Way of Lane County. “There will be a lot of people that will be struggling as a result of this.”

Asset Limited Income Constrained Employment, or ALICE, reports calculate the basic cost of living, which is more than the poverty level. According to a 2014 ALICE report, the cost of survival in the Pacific Northwest, which includes housing, transportation and child care but not savings, is $19,212, which is 165% of that year’s federal poverty level. A 2016 ALICE in Lane County report found that 18% of the county lives in poverty, but a combined 26% live below the ALICE threshold for survival.

Various nonprofit groups have a higher count of Oregonians potentially affected by the rule change than the count provided by DHS. Data from Mathematica estimates that 119,495 Oregonians will lose their benefits, resulting in a loss of benefits for 16% of households currently in the program.

The policy research group used microsimulation models and 2016 SNAP data to visualize how changes to SNAP eligibility requirements could affect SNAP participants including children, seniors and people with disabilities. The project was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a New Jersey-based philanthropy focused on public health. While the USDA released information on the national impact of the rule change, the project’s senior research programmer, ­Sarah Lauffer, said an important part of understanding the policy change’s impact is studying how states are individually impacted, as broad-based categorical policies vary.

“I’m really hopeful that this tool can be used for people who are interested in commenting on the rule,” Lauffer said.

Mathematica did not provide county-level data out of a concern for privacy — reporting income and demographic information on smaller counties has the potential to expose them to security and privacy risks, so groups fighting hunger in Lane County are using the statewide data from Mathematica to calculate the community’s potential loss of benefits.

Lane County is home to approximately 10% of all SNAP beneficiaries in Oregon, so advocates are operating with the assumption that 11,900 people, or 6,600 households, in the county would lose their benefits.

“Do we have the capacity to fill the gap for 6,600 (households)? I really don’t know,” Dunnells of United Way of Lane County said.

Food insecurity among Oregonians decreased by nearly a third since the Oregon Legislature passed a law increasing the minimum wage in 2016, according to a report from the USDA. But advocates worry the progress could be undone by the looming rule change, according to the Oregon Food Bank. Public comments on the proposal, currently over 11,000, must be reviewed before the rule change can go into effect.

“We certainly hope that it does not take effect, and if it does, we’ll respond to it as best we can,” said FOOD for Lane County’s Mulhern. “And our partners throughout the community are very strong here. … And that’s not going to change.”

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