USDA to enforce food stamp benefit cut in March |

USDA to enforce food stamp benefit cut in March

The Agriculture Department today told the state administrators of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that the farm bill provision lowering benefits for households that have been getting nominal Low-Income Energy Assistance Program payments will go into effect this month because the farm bill required that it go into effect 30 days after the bill was enacted.

President Barack Obama signed the farm bill on Feb. 7 in Lansing, Mich.

“Congress was clear in the farm bill that the reductions in SNAP benefits take effect not later than 30 days after enactment,” a Vilsack spokeswoman said today. “Given those limitations, USDA is providing states with as much flexibility as is reasonably possible under the law.”

The nutrition title of the farm bill says that states must make a LIHEAP payment of at least $20 per year for the payment to trigger a higher benefit. Fifteen states and the District Columbia have been making what are known as low “heat and eat” payments to trigger another $90 per month in benefits.

The governors of New York and Connecticut have already announced they will increase the LIHEAP payments, and there have been reports other states are considering it.

The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the provision would reduce SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps, for 850,000 households nationwide, but the increase in LIHEAP payments in New York will maintain benefits for 300,000 households and in Connecticut for 50,000 households.

The provision will affect some food stamp beneficiaries in the District of Columbia and 13 states: California, Delaware, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., organized 98 senators and House members to ask Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to delay implementation of the provision until fall. USDA lawyers said the department had to follow the law, although the department is giving the states more time for recertification of current beneficiaries and won’t hold the states accountable for changes until July.

Although New York has resolved the issue, a Gillibrand spokesman said the senator was still disappointed that USDA did not delay implementation.

In a letter to state administrators, Jessica Shahin, associate administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service, noted that states must implement the new regulation for households applying for SNAP benefits for the first time on March 10 but that the states will have more time to change benefits for beneficiaries who must be recertified.

The regulation will apply to recertifications beginning April 1, but states will be encouraged “to review their current utility allowances, including the limited utility allowance and the single utility allowances to ensure that households with actual utility expenses are able to claim all of the deductions for which they are eligible,” Shahin wrote.

Recognizing that this could take some time and following usual FNS procedures, Shahin wrote that USDA will begin holding states accountable for the changes 60 days after March, but “states will be held harmless for 120 days from March 10, 2014, for errors occurring as a result of the implementation of this provision. The variance exclusion will end on July 8, 2014.”

Under SNAP regulations, benefits are determined by income, but applicants are allowed to reduce that income level by deducting several types of expenses including rent, child care and utility expenses. Shahin noted that applicants who present utility bills remain eligible for the standard utility allowance known as the SUA that triggers a higher benefit level. F

–the Hagstrom Report