An estimated 133,000 people in North Carolina would lose access to government food assistance programs under a provision tucked into the Senate budget approved last week.
The provision changes the state’s eligibility requirements for the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – commonly known as food stamps. The change wouldn’t save the state any money because funding comes from the federal government, but Republican Sen. Ralph Hise of Mitchell County says the change would make the system more fair.
Under current requirements, people can qualify if they receive other government assistance benefits, such as disability payments – even if their income level is higher than the maximum income for food assistance. Known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” the same policy is used by 38 other states.
For a three-person household, $26,000 is the current maximum annual income to qualify for food assistance. But if that same household receives other types of government assistance, it could earn $39,000 annually and still receive food assistance.
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“This provision closes a loophole that ballooned under the Obama administration allowing people to qualify for food stamps even if they wouldn’t otherwise be eligible because they have valuable assets or savings in the bank,” Hise said in an email. “The purpose of the change is to ensure benefits are delivered to those who are truly in need of them.”
Hise’s provision appears on page 114 of the budget and wasn’t discussed during Senate floor debates last week. The liberal advocacy group N.C. Policy Watch first reported on the provision Monday.
According to numbers released this week by the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, 132,902 people across the state would lose food assistance if the change is in the final budget. Of those, 51,236 are age 18 or younger – and could therefore lose access to free and reduced-price school meals.
Gov. Roy Cooper issued a statement Wednesday criticizing the provision.
“Senate Republicans quietly slipped a provision in their budget to cut 100 percent federally-funded food-stamps for 133,000 North Carolinians,” the Democrat said.
“This food makes a real difference for families who need it and doesn’t cost North Carolina any state tax money. Lining the pockets of millionaires while going out of the way to make it harder for children to eat is just wrong.”
The Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina said it expects requests for emergency food assistance could increase if the Senate’s proposal takes effect.
“This comes at a time of year where we are already concerned about those kids who do receive the free and reduced cost meals being out of school for summer, and not having daily access to those meals,” Food Bank spokeswoman Jessica Whichard said. “The elimination of (categorical eligibility) is additional stress on families who are already stretched incredibly thin, not sure where their next meals will come from.”
The Food Bank provided estimates showing 36 percent of the households that will lose food assistance have children, 28 percent include elderly family members, and 23 percent include people with disabilities.
The proposed eligibility changes come less than a year after North Carolina reinstated requirements that food stamp recipients must work, volunteer or take classes for at least 20 hours a week.
That federal requirement – which applies to adults under 50 who don’t have children – was suspended in 2008 as the recession hit and unemployment rates rose. The federal government ended that exemption on Jan. 1, 2016, for 23 mostly urban counties across the state, including Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg.
The state’s other 77 counties, which have seen slower economic recoveries, were still eligible for the exemption under federal rules. But the legislature voted in 2015 to reinstate the work requirements in those counties too, and the rules took effect last July.
That change affected about 115,000 people who had to document work, volunteer or education activities or lose their food stamp benefits. Recipients can still get up to three months of benefits without meeting the requirement.
DHHS saw a spike in the number of people rejected from receiving food stamps in October, when the three-month grace period ended for the work requirement.
In September, 151 people were rejected, according to DHHS data released under a public records request. That number increased to 5,447 people in October and 1,088 in November.
The Food Bank said it’s seeing impacts from the work requirement change. “While we don’t know that this is a direct correlation, we do know that, as of the end of 2016, the number of people we are in contact with who have received (food assistance) benefits is down 10 percent, while the number of people we are serving through partner agencies is up by about 12 percent,” Whichard said.
The Senate’s latest budget provision also includes a requirement that food stamp recipients must be up-to-date on any child support payments. The budget is now in the House, where it’s unclear if budget writers will include the food stamp provision in their proposal.
If they don’t back the eligibility change, the issue will be resolved in budget negotiations between the two chambers.