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Cutting SNAP

Earlier this month, the USDA finalized a rule that it says will save roughly $5.5 billion over five years and cut monthly food assistance for around 688,000 Americans.

This is the first of three Trump administration plans to significantly reduce food aid from our nation's primary hunger prevention program. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the first finalized rule on Dec. 4, saying it will move people from "welfare to work." The facts say otherwise.

Able-bodied people ages 18-49 who have no dependents already are required to work at least 20 hours per week to get Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. Those who fail to meet the work requirement are limited to no more than three months of benefits in 36 months. The new rule doesn't change that work requirement.

Instead, it changes exceptions that can be granted in high unemployment areas at the request of the state. The new rule substantially limits the ability of states to get waivers. Unfortunately, cutting off access to food won't put people to work if there is no employment opportunity.

Among 105,000 total SNAP recipients in Montana now, there are about 3,200 individuals in over 30 counties who receive SNAP through a waiver of the work requirement, according to the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services.

DPHHS is still analyzing the new rule, which will take effect in April, to determine its impact on Montanans, a department spokesman said last week.

Next spring, thousands of Montanans with low income may lose the groceries that have supplemented their monthly food supply. Unemployment is low now so the rule's effect will be small compared to the impact it will have in a recession.

"SNAP is designed to expand during economic downturns, and in doing so, it offers nutrition assistance to low-income families and also provides economic stimulus to communities and the economy as a whole," Brookings Institution researchers wrote recently. "Accordingly, the USDA's final rule has greatly weakened a crucial part of the safety net for vulnerable populations and one of the most effective recession-fighting tools in the fiscal policy toolkit."

Researchers Lauren Bauer, Jana Parsons and Jay Shambaugh updated a previous study and found that fewer than half the U.S. counties that had work requirement waivers in the Great Recession would have qualified if the new Trump administration rule had been in effect then. The rules in place in 2007-2009 allowed states to quickly ramp up food aid eligibility as their communities lost jobs and the recession started.

The Brookings economists found that "even states with high unemployment rates may not qualify for a waiver under the final rule if their unemployment rate is not 20% higher than the national rate."

In Montana, the highest rates of unemployment are on Indian Reservations. In response to Gazette questions, the DPHHS spokesman said the agency didn't  know yet how the new rule will affect Montana reservations. DPHHS officials won't know which counties will continue to receive the geographic waiver until the federal government decides next year.

Publication of the final rule restricting state waivers came just days after The Gazette opined on a Trump administration proposal to cut food aid by standardizing the allowance for utility expenses among the 50 states. The rule is not yet final. If implemented, the utility allowance change would reduce grocery benefits for 43% of Montana households receiving SNAP by an average of $50 a month, according to USDA's own estimate.

The administration is pursuing policies that not only penalize low income Americans, but also leave our nation less prepared to weather the next economic downturn. SNAP benefits help the economy because recipients spend them at local markets. The proposed rule changes will reduce funds flowing into the Montana economy and increase demands on private charities and food banks. When times get tough for all of us, the new and proposed SNAP rules will have slashed the safety net that helped Montana survive the Great Recession.

USDA should rethink its counter-productive changes.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.