NH food stamp drop pinned on rule change, not economy
Not so fast.
Instead, it's because the federal government decided the state was doing well enough by the end of 2012 to return to stricter eligibility standards that pre-date the recession. And that dropped 3,051 households from the program in 2013 alone.
Terry Smith is director of the state Division of Family Assistance, which administers food stamp benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
One of the policy changes that came out of welfare reform in the 1990s involved able-bodied adults ages 18 to 50 without dependent children (known as ABAWDs).
These individuals can only receive three months of food stamps within a three-year period; after that, the benefits cease - unless an individual works an average of 20 hours a week, Smith explained. "In which case, you can stay on the program and receive food stamps," he said.
But after the recession hit and case loads began to rise nationwide, the USDA gave states waivers on those ABAWD restrictions. Now these individuals "could get food stamps as long as they needed it, because the thought was there are just no jobs to be had," Smith said.
And the numbers have continued to decline every month since. By last month, there were 53,521 households on food stamps here, the lowest number since December 2010.
So while some have touted declining SNAP case loads as a sign that the nation's economy is improving, Smith said that's not necessarily the case here.
"New Hampshire's case load decline cannot be separated from the change in federal policy," he said, "and in fact, there's no evidence to suggest that the case load is improving relative to an improving economy."
Smith pointed out SNAP case loads were still climbing in January 2013; he wonders what the numbers here would look like had the relaxed ABAWD rules remained in place.
"So we could be losing more ABAWDs and gaining population from the others."
And here's why all this could wind up costing New Hampshire federal dollars.
Smith explained that the USDA awards performance bonuses to top states based on food stamp participation rates: "That's the number of clients who are eligible for food stamps compared to those that are actually receiving food stamps."
The problem is, New Hampshire may now look worse in that ranking, known as the Program Access Index, because of how many ABAWDs dropped off the rolls here.
Smith noted 35 other states, plus the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, are still operating under ABAWD waivers. So it's no longer a level playing field when it comes to competing for that federal bonus money, he contends.
A spokesman for the USDA last week said in an email that the agency's Food and Nutrition Service "works closely with state partners to ensure eligible individuals have access to SNAP benefits."