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NH food stamp drop pinned on rule change, not economy

New Hampshire Sunday News

June 14. 2014 9:20PM

The number of New Hampshire households receiving food stamps has dropped by about 4,700 since the beginning of 2013 - another sign that the state is recovering from the economic slump, right?

Not so fast.

New Hampshire's declining case load is in fact tied to the state's improving economic health. But it's not because people here don't need the help anymore, officials say.

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.

The change also could end up costing the state federal dollars.

Terry Smith is director of the state Division of Family Assistance, which administers food stamp benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

On May 28, Smith wrote a letter to the acting director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service, voicing concern that the change puts the state "at a statistical disadvantage when competing for federal bonus money."

Here's why:

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.

"Like all of welfare reform, it's tied to employment-related activities and the expectation that people on assistance will be moving toward independence."

Waivers given

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.

By the end of 2012, however, he said, "New Hampshire was one of only a few states whose economy was deemed improved enough to return to those restrictions." The waiver was lifted - and the effect was immediate.

New Hampshire's SNAP case load peaked in January 2013, when 58,229 households received benefits. But that February - the same month those stricter ABAWD rules kicked back in - the number of SNAP cases dropped by 1,933.

"The only variable that changed was the ABAWD rule," 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.

Different situation

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 said he suspects the number of adults who have lost food stamps here because of the eligibility change is actually much higher than the 3,051 documented ABAWD cases that closed in 2013.

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.

"The case load trend turned on a dime," he said. "And my question is, as we look at the numbers, where would the case loads be now? Would they have continued to increase?

"So we could be losing more ABAWDs and gaining population from the others."

By May, the total drop in SNAP households since the waiver was lifted was 4,708.

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."

Looking bad

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.

New Hampshire has qualified for the bonus funding three times since 2002, Smith said; that year, the state received $1 million for improved participation among children. In 2007, the state received $330,500, and in 2010, it won $438,214 for its improved participation rates.

The funding, which by law cannot be used to increase federally set benefits, has gone to improving systems here, such as digitizing case files, Smith said.

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."

"USDA received New Hampshire's letter addressing the calculating of the SNAP Program Access Index and will carefully review the state's request," the statement read.

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