Jerry Knirk: The Food Stamp Bill

  • Published in Columns

 

You may have already heard about Senate Bill 7, which will take away food stamps from about 18,000 needy families in New Hampshire.

This bill, which had a hearing before the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee on April 12, has two parts. The first changes eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) commonly called food stamps. The second establishes a pilot program to train people for jobs.

Though there are good points about the second half, the portion taking away SNAP from working poor families is ill-conceived, cruel and harmful. Forty people and groups testified, with only two testifying in favor of both parts (and one of those was from an out-of-state group). Groups testifying against the SNAP portion included representatives from the Department of Health and Human Services, N.H. Legal Assistance, Catholic Charities, local welfare administrators, food banks, schools, farmer’s markets, nutritionists and concerned citizens.

The bill is sponsored by six Republican senators (including Jeb Bradley) and four Republican representatives. The sponsors state that SB 7 is necessary to fight welfare fraud and to discourage welfare dependence. The prime sponsor started his testimony waving around an article about a woman who just pled guilty to welfare fraud by not reporting that she was married. New Hampshire has one of the lowest rates of welfare fraud in the nation at less than 1 percent. It is also interesting to note that there is no language in this bill which addresses fraud.

SNAP is a federal program, paid for entirely with federal dollars. The federal government sets eligibility requirements. States can apply for waivers to alter the eligibility requirements. New Hampshire is one of 40 states in the nation with expanded categorical eligibility, but it is one of the most restrictive expansions as it is only available to families with children.

Currently, the federal poverty limit is $16,240 per year for a family of two. Under current federal guidelines, you are eligible for SNAP if you have a gross income of 130 percent of FPL or less ($21,000) and assets of $2,250 or less.

The current eligibility in New Hampshire is set at 185 percent of the federal poverty level. This bill will reduce that to the federal limit of 130 percent. Altering this threshold will remove about 18,000 New Hampshire families from eligibility for SNAP.

This will not save New Hampshire any money since the money is all federal. New Hampshire would be leaving on the table these federal dollars. These are dollars which would go into our local economy through grocery stores and farmer’s markets (including the Tamworth Farmer’s Market). Families who lose SNAP will then turn to local food banks and to towns for assistance.

It is important to put this in perspective. Setting the eligibility requirement at 130 percent FPL translates into $21,000 per year for a family of two. This is equivalent to earning $10 per hour in a full-time job.

The current eligibility cut-off would mean working full-time at $14.44 per hour. New Hampshire has high living expenses.

If we take the example of a working single mother who needs child care, independent estimates by the New Hampshire Fiscal Policy Institute and MIT place the living expenses for such a family in New Hampshire at about $50,000-60,000 per year. If that working single mother is earning $14 per hour (gross income about $29,000 per year) she would fall far short of her needs but not be eligible for SNAP under the proposed changes. It is not likely that she would be able to feed the family without assistance.

If she stayed out of the workforce, she would be still eligible for SNAP. This law has the perverse incentive of penalizing the working poor who are trying to make it on their own. It is a disincentive to work, just the opposite of what the sponsors claim.

Another issue that the sponsors brought up is that recipients who receive SNAP should be working. Able-bodied adults without dependents are already required to work. There are stringent requirements to apply for the waiver to this requirement. New Hampshire applied for that waiver for a few towns in the North Country where unemployment is very high. The waiver affects only 38 households in New Hampshire. This bill would prevent continuation of that waiver.

It is a good policy goal to decrease the dependency of people on welfare by increasing the wages of low-wage workers to lift them out of poverty. Senate Bill 7 will decrease the number of families getting SNAP assistance, not by helping them out of poverty, but by arbitrarily throwing them off the rolls.

Passing this bill would be bad for New Hampshire by undermining the food security of 18,000 families, leaving federal dollars behind, losing the economic stimulus of those dollars in our food sector and down-shifting costs to the local towns. It is a cruel and mean-spirited bill which is part of a national conservative effort but will not help New Hampshire.

Jerry Knirk is a freshman state representative. He lives in Freedom.