More than 3,000 Hawaii households would likely lose their food stamps under new restrictions proposed by the Trump administration, according to an analysis by the state Department of Human Services.
Administration officials say the proposed rule change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, would save the government money and close what they’ve described as a loophole that allows states to increase income and asset limits to help residents qualify.
But local advocacy organizations say the proposed rule change would take away food assistance from Hawaii’s neediest and put pressure on local hunger-relief organizations while taking away the the state’s ability to adjust the income and asset variables for qualifying for SNAP to comport with Hawaii’s high cost of living.
“Even while working multiple jobs, too many families in Hawaii just can’t make ends meet,” said Daniela Kittinger, director of Anti-Hunger Initiatives at the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, in a news release. “If Hawaii residents are no longer allowed to include their high cost of housing, child care and other essential expenses in their food stamp applications, then thousands will face even tougher choices, such as between paying for food and paying their rent.”
The federal government is accepting public comments on the proposal through Sept. 23. Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the SNAP program, will need to review all the comments before a final decision is made.
Pankaj Bhanot, director of the state Department of Human Services, which administers the SNAP program locally, said he has raised concerns about the changes with Hawaii’s congressional delegation and federal officials.
“We have made it very clear to the federal partners that this is going to have a very, very negative effect on Hawaii, in particular,” he said.
Specifically, the proposed rule would restrict what is called “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which allows states to adjust income limits for residents seeking to obtain food assistance. The standard federal eligibility cutoff is 130% of the federal poverty level, or about $38,000 annually for a family of four in Hawaii. But the exemption allows Hawaii to adjust this cutoff for applying for the program to 200% of the federal poverty level, or $59,240 annually.
DHS then takes into account various assets and exemptions, such as child care and housing expenses, in determining a household’s net income and whether it qualifies.
The waiver also allows states to adopt less restrictive asset limits so that certain households, including seniors and the disabled, can have more savings or own their home without losing SNAP benefits.
As of June, 79,702 households in Hawaii received food assistance under the SNAP program, said Bhanot. Among those, 3,062 households qualified because they were able to apply for the program under the higher income and asset limits.
Bhanot said that the proposed rule change could go into effect as early as this year.
Kittinger said the changes could also jeopardize free school lunches for kids in Hawaii. Thousands of students automatically qualify for free school meals because they live in communities where at least 40% of households qualify for SNAP. Fifty-two out of 256 schools across Hawaii currently provide universal free meals to all of their students. If enough families lose their SNAP benefits in a given community, their school could fall below the qualifying threshold.
Officials with the U.S. Department of Agriculture have said the rule change would create uniformity across states and crack down on abuse.
“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,” according to USDA news release announcing the proposed rule change.
The agency estimates that nationally the changes to SNAP will save about $2.5 billion annually.
PROPOSED FOOD STAMP CHANGES
Hawaii residents would have to meet lower income thresholds in order to receive SNAP benefits under the proposed new rule changes:
HOUSEHOLD SIZE / CURRENT INCOME / NEW REQUIREMENT
200% OF POVERTY LEVEL 130% OF POVERTY LEVEL
1 $2,328 $1,513
2 $3,156 $2,051
3 $3,984 $2,590
4 $4,812 $3,128
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