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Trump proposal would slash food stamps for nearly 6,000 WNYers

Buffalo News - 8/2/2019

Aug. 2--WASHINGTON -- At least 5,700 food stamp recipients in metro Buffalo would lose their benefits under a Trump administration proposal aimed at cutting fraud and waste from the program.

"Some states are taking advantage of loopholes that allow people to receive the benefits who would otherwise not qualify and for which they are not entitled," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in explaining the proposal to reporters late last month.

But according to those who work with the poor in Western New York, those who would lose their food aid aren't fraudsters or wastrels.

"This is just really make it very hard for working families, seniors, people with disabilities," said Catherine Shick, communications director at FeedMore WNY, which runs Buffalo's food bank and Meals on Wheels program. "It would really make it so much more difficult for them to access the critical nutrition and food that they need."

At issue is a set of rules changes that the Department of Agriculture proposed late last month that would end access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for approximately 3.1 million people nationwide.

Most noteworthy, the proposed change would end New York's ability to give food stamps to families with income of more than 130% of the federal poverty level. Instead, to qualify, they would have to prove they are receiving other federal welfare benefits that show they are, in fact, poor.

Supporters of the change cite the case of a Minnesota millionaire who, since he didn't have to prove that he was in need, was able to get food stamps.

"Mandatory spending on entitlement programs is wrought with fraud and abuse," Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence Republican and strong supporter of the Trump administration, said in a statement. "The administration's proposal to close loopholes in the SNAP program will ensure that the most vulnerable populations are getting the help they need while preserving the program and reining in abuse."

Others say, though, that the change will leave some needy people going hungry. The only question is how many.

The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance, which administers New York's food stamp program, projects that the proposed tighter reins on the program's income limits will cost 87,000 New Yorkers their food stamp benefits. That's about 3.3% of the total, or about 5,713 people in Erie and Niagara counties.

These are not wealthy people, advocates for the poor say. Instead they are the working poor, most of them families with young children to feed who work at one or more low-wage jobs.

"Once again the Trump administration is proposing cruel changes that would literally take food out of the mouths of the most vulnerable New Yorkers," said Justin Mason, a spokesman for the state agency.

Worse yet from the state's standpoint, it's unable to calculate the total number of New Yorkers who would lose their food stamps under the Trump plan.

A second part of the proposal would reimpose an asset limit test for the program. Families with any members over the age of 60 would be disqualified from the program if they had more than $3,500 in cash assets, while all other families would lose their benefits if their cash assets exceed $2,250.

Since there's no way of knowing exactly how much money current food stamp recipients have stashed away, there's no way for the state to know how many people will lose their benefits.

But national food security advocates estimate that the combined changes will cut 8.6% of people from the SNAP program. So if the same percentage applied to metro Buffalo, the combined changes would cost 14,666 people their food stamps.

Experts in the food stamp program are particularly concerned about the asset test, saying it will discourage poor people from doing one of the things they need to do to lift themselves out of poverty: building some savings for use in case of emergencies, or as the down payment on a home someday.

Karen Rybicki, first deputy commissioner of social services in Erie County, cited the hypothetical example of a resident of the East Side of Buffalo who gets a job in Getzville and needs to buy a car to avoid an hourslong bus commute every day.

"So you want to save money so you can buy a car, and you want you to put that money in the bank," she said. "Now, when it's time for you to get recertified for food stamps, we would get the bank statement, and we would end up having to deny them their food stamps because maybe they had $3,000 in the bank."

Still, Republicans who back the Trump proposal support the idea that the changes are worth it to make sure the right people are getting food stamps.

"These are taxpayer dollars, in my opinion," said Rep. Tom Reed, a Corning Republican. "And the people who are administering the program should make sure that a benefit is delivered to the people that qualify for it. And the people that are not qualified for it should not take the resources that otherwise should go to other families."

Lawmakers like Reed won't have much of a chance to weigh in on this proposal, though. It's a federal administrative change, which the Trump administration hopes to impose later this year after a public comment period.

Unless the administration abandons or changes the proposal, it could end up in court, said Ellen Vollinger, legal/food stamp director for the Food Research and Action Center, which works to reduce hunger and poor nutrition among the poor. That's because Vollinger and others -- including Rep. Brian Higgins -- think the proposal usurps power from Congress, which set up the food stamp program in the first place.

"This undermines Congress' authority to fund programs and to establish criteria," said Higgins, a Buffalo Democrat. "The administration is unilaterally changing a rule, which will adversely affect the very people that Congress wanted to help by creating the program in the first place."

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(c)2019 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

Visit The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.) at www.buffalonews.com

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