NorthWest Family Foods, 2016

A volunteer from Grunts Move Junk helps load boxes of donated food onto a truck bound for NorthWest Family Foods.

ST. ALBANS – It is still uncertain how a proposed rule change finalized by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) Wednesday may impact the administration of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Vermont, according to advocates.

Last Wednesday, USDA finalized a rule tightening restrictions on how states are able to waive certain work requirements for areas of high employment.

Those rules, set to go into effect April 1, now require those areas to have an unemployment rate of at least 6 percent, and individual states are no longer allowed to define their own geographic areas when applying for waivers.

Currently, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in Vermont sits at a rate of 2.2 percent in September, the lowest among the New England states.

“It’s a little unclear right now what the impact is in Vermont,” Hunger Free Vermont’s Faye Mack said Friday. The rule change, compared to when it was first proposed a year ago, was, according to Mack, “significantly different.”

Without waivers, able-bodied adults receiving SNAP benefits are allowed to access those benefits as long as they work or are in work training for 20 hours a week for more than three months every three years.

Prior to attempts by the Trump Administration to standardize the administration of SNAP benefits, those work restrictions could be waived by states in geographic areas where unemployment was high or there was a lack of sufficient jobs.

Late in December, USDA proposed restrictions that would require geographic regions to have an unemployment rate of at least 7 percent, effectively removing 750,000 clients from SNAP nationally, according to a USDA study.

The USDA reported Wednesday the revised rule would reduce that number to 688,000 users losing access to the program.

A projection by the Urban Institute suggested the impact in Vermont may be limited under the originally proposed rule change, with different proposed changes to the administration of SNAP benefits expected to have a steeper impact on the Green Mountain State.

The report, published last month, suggested that, based off of 2018 participation in 3SquaresVT, less than 100 people would be pressed out of the program as a result of the stricter work requirements.

According to Mack, Hunger Free Vermont, a statewide organization working to address food insecurity, feared both immediate impacts to SNAP and the longer-term effects limiting the state’s ability to leverage SNAP benefits when the economy begins to slide.

While the economy appears strong enough now, she suggested that stricter requirements on where states can waive time limits on SNAP benefits could stymie Vermont’s ability to use SNAP as a future safety net.

“Hunger Free Vermont is concerned about immediate impacts and we’re also concerned about long term ramifications,” Mack said. “[This could] inhibit SNAP’s ability to be readily available when the economy shifts.”

When USDA introduced the finalized rule change Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue championed the rule change as a means to “move more able-bodied recipients... towards self-sufficiency and into employment.”

“Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream,” Perdue wrote in a statement accompanying the Wednesday’s announcement. “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”

The revised work requirements would save the government $5.5 billion over the next five years, according to USDA.

According to Mack, it likely would not be until October 2020, when current waivers on work requirements are set to expire, that Vermont would see the impacts of this particular change to SNAP benefits.

Hunger Free Vermont feared potentially lasting damage to the program, however.

“The perception the program is not available makes it more stigmatized,” Mack said. “People may feel the program isn’t stable.”

The current rule change is scheduled to go into effect April 1.

Another two changes to the rules governing the national administration of SNAP are currently under review by USDA.

Those rules, preventing states from automatically enrolling participants of other aid programs into SNAP and limiting states’ ability to weigh utility costs when considering SNAP benefits, were projected to have an outsized effect on Vermont.

A fourth rule change regarding low-income immigrant households’ access to SNAP benefits was halted this year by a federal court.

Food insecurity, the consistent lack of access to nutritious food, remains pervasive in Franklin County.

A 2017 report filed by the nonprofit Feeding America found 10 percent of the population overall and 14 percent of children in Franklin County could be considered food insecure.

In nearby Grand Isle County, just shy of 10 percent of the population and almost 15 percent of children were considered food insecure in 2017.

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