Americans who live in cold-weather states like Vermont, New York and South Dakota could be the next to feel the impact of the Trump administration’s efforts to tighten food-stamp eligibility.
That’s because the Department of Agriculture wants to change how heating and other utility bills are calculated into a family’s expenses. When people apply for food stamps, they subtract their state’s typical utility costs from their income, which provides the program with an idea of how much they have left for other expenses. That, in turn, helps determine their food-stamp benefits.
The proposed overhaul may hurt poor residents of many cold-weather states by reducing the amount they can deduct for utility costs, according to a new analysis from the Urban Institute. About 29 states would see a decline in funding from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as the food-stamp program is formally known, although the hardest-hit would be those with costly winter heating bills, it found. The USDA has not specified when the overhaul could happen.
Trump's promise on jobs:Has Trump fulfilled his pledge to turbocharge growth?
Don't count on refunds: 5 year-end tips to get your money safely through the holidays
“There may be some increase in food insecurity and poverty as a result of the change,” says Laura Wheaton, senior fellow at the Urban Institute and the report’s author.
What's happening to food stamps?
Vermont would lose almost 22% of its food stamp aid, while New York, South Dakota and Maine would lose about 11% each, the analysis found. Anti-hunger advocates in Vermont said the proposal could hurt people who are already struggling in the mostly rural state.
Almost 7 in 10 Vermonters on food stamps would see a cut in assistance, said Drake Turner, food security advocacy manager for the nonprofit Hunger Free Vermont. The typical benefit would be reduced by almost 40%, dropping from $215 a month to about $133.
“People would face difficult choices about whether to buy food or pay their rent,” she says. Referring to this plan and other proposed cuts to the program, Turner says, “I have received calls from people who are worried they won't be able to receive food stamps. It's psychologically damaging.”
It’s up to each state to determine its residents’ typical utility expenses. Some rely on their state’s utility data, while others peg it to the consumer price index, the USDA says, citing a 2017 study from the agency. The proposal would set utility costs at the 80th percentile of what low-income consumers pay in each state. That means the USDA will look at the typical utility bills paid by low-income people in the state, then peg the deduction at what 80% of those households actually pay.
The USDA said the proposed rule would replace a “patchwork” of outdated data “with a modernized, uniform approach based on up-to-date data on actual household utility costs in each state.” Some states had increased their utility data “far beyond reasonable levels,” a spokesman said in a statement, without specifying which states.
The utility-cost overhaul would reduce food-stamp spending by about $4.5 billion over five years, according to USDA estimates.
But it’s not clear why the USDA picked the 80th percentile, and it appears to be counter to the only previous guidance on using utility costs when determining food aid, says Ellen Vollinger, the legal director at the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center. In 1979, the USDA recommended pegging utility costs to the 95th percentile of spending, she says.
Target gift card sale is back: Here's what you need to know and how to save 10%
That earlier guidance said that “states should be encouraged to set it high enough so that if you are one of the higher-expenses households in the state, that this is just as good for you as if you are claiming your actual expenses,” she says. The proposal “is going to be very deep cuts for some states.”
Tightened access to SNAP
More than 89,000 people have commented on the utility cost proposal, which closed its public comment period on Monday. Vollinger says the outpouring, with many arguing against the change, is heartening for a plan that at first glance can sound “archaic.”
But, she adds, consumers understand the proposal could force people to “choose whether to heat or eat.”
The utility plan is one of three food stamp overhauls proposed by the Trump administration. On Wednesday, the USDA said it would move forward with its first proposal to tighten work requirements, which will push about 700,000 people from the food-stamp rolls. A second proposal would cut another 3.1 million recipients by getting rid of automatic enrollment when some families receive other welfare benefits.
The proposed cuts come as the food stamp program is already shrinking, thanks to an economy that’s lifting more households out of poverty. Taxpayers spent about $60 billion on SNAP in fiscal year 2018, down from about $64 billion in the previous year.
A date for a final rule on the utility proposal hasn’t yet been set, the USDA said.
States facing impact
Below are the 10 states that would face the biggest impact, with the percentage drop in food-stamp funding, according to the Urban Institute:
1. Vermont -21.6%
2. New York -11.1%
3. South Dakota -11%
4. Maine -10.8%
5. Pennsylvania -8.1%
6. Massachusetts -7.3%
7. North Dakota -7.3%
8. Connecticut -7.1%
9. Montana -7%
10. Michigan -6.2%
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Food stamps: Americans in cold weathered states could get less aid