Thousands Of Oregonians Risk Cut In Food Subsidy Benefits

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Thousands of Oregonians who rely on federal assistance to help put food on the table are facing a possible benefit cut under a proposed rule change. 

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, serves nearly half a million Oregon residents. One in six of them would be cut off under a proposal that would tighten eligibility criteria 

That has allowed states to allow more families to qualify for SNAP benefits. Of the 40 states that have offered the benefit since it began in the late 1990s, just two would face a proportionately higher impact than Oregon, an analysis conducted by a leading health care policy group has found.

More than 66,000 Oregonians – 16 percent of SNAP beneficiaries in the state – stand to lose eligibility if the U.S. Department of Agriculture tightens who can be covered by the policy, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation study found. The agriculture department announced the proposed change in late July.

Right now states can offer more residents SNAP assistance by linking their eligibility to another federal welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. While SNAP benefits typically cap at 130 percent of the federal poverty level, residents making up to 200 percent of the poverty line can qualify for the needy families program.

The rule change would alter how eligibility is calculated, effectively cutting off access for families above the 130 percent line. Thousands of Oregon households bring in more than 130 percent but less than 200 percent of the poverty level, which is $12,490 for an individual or $25,750 for a family of four. So the impact would be significant.

"Upon initial review, it appears that 66,000 SNAP customers or 34,990 households would be affected by the proposal," Jake Sunderland, a spokesman for the Oregon Department of Human Services, told The Lund Report in an email. "However, we are delving further into this to be able to provide more information on that number. We hope to have that information soon."

In its report released last week, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Mathematica analyzed state-level data to determine the proportional effect on each state. Nationwide, about 9 percent of SNAP recipients are expected to lose benefits if the change takes effect – 3.6 people and 1.9 million households, the groups found.

The federal proposal doesn't necessarily mean the change will take effect. The Department of Agriculture is taking public comment on the proposed rule change through Sept. 23.

But it represents an effort by the Trump administration to trim a major welfare program without congressional approval. A summary of the rule change says that states with broad-based categorical eligibility "may not conduct a robust edibility determination and do not meaningfully move families toward self-sufficiency," a summary of the rule change says.

Oregon is one of 20 states projected to see an enrollment drop of 10 percent or more under the rule change. Only Wisconsin and North Dakota would see a higher proportional impact than Oregon, the analysis found.

Those decreases could have a big effect on health outcomes for Oregonians and low-income families around the country, some health care advocates fear.

"There are a number of studies on the question of what happens when people lose SNAP benefits," said Dr. Giridhar Mallya, senior policy officer with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. "Not surprisingly, hunger increases, and there can be downstream impacts on people's health."

A 2016 study by Northwestern University researchers examined the health of people who were children as SNAP was phased in during the 1960s and early 70s. Counties weren't required to provide benefits until 1975, so the study compared the health of adults who grew up in participating counties before it was mandatory, to adults who grew up in places where benefits weren't provided.

"It showed those kids, once they became adults, were more likely to be more economically self-sufficient," Mallya said of children in counties that opted in to SNAP benefits early on. "And as adults they were less likely to have metabolic syndrome, obesity, diabetes, those kinds of impacts on health and wellbeing."

Other studies have linked the availability of SNAP benefits to childhood success in school, and SNAP cuts to added medical care needs for diabetics whose benefits run out at the end of the month.

Advocates for expanded health care access warn the cuts could put extra strain on federal programs like Women, Infants and Children benefits. Food pantries and other community resources stand to see more families needing assistance, Mallya said, and the cost to treat low-income residents with health issues related to poor nutrition may outweigh the savings the rule change's backers hope for.

"Most families get a couple hundred dollars a month with SNAP benefits, which may not sound like much," Mallya said. "But for these families that, by and large, are living in poverty or near poverty, those SNAP benefits are a critical lifeline for them."

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