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Rural Blog: SNAP rules target able-bodied people without dependents, but may have ripple effects

Changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could have a substantial ripple effect in a small town. In Letcher County, pop. 25,000, the new rules could cost up to 400 residents their SNAP benefits and could potentially affect their families, Sam Adams reports for The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg.

The changes, set to take affect April 1, are expected to cost more than 3 million Americans their SNAP benefits. Rural areas could be disproportionately affected since rural households are more likely to use the program, formerly known as food stamps. In 2018, 85 of the 100 counties that relied most on SNAP were rural.

Letcher County (Wikipedia map)

The changes have widespread support because they target able-bodied adults without dependents who are under 50 and don’t work 20 hours a week. But many “ABAWDs” still have unofficial dependents, such as elderly parents, step-children, a spouse who’s between jobs, or children who live with another parent, says Dustin Pugel, an analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy. “If you take SNAP away from one person, it affects the food budget for the entire family,” he told Adams.

An article in The Atlantic affirms Pugel’s observation on informal dependents, though in an urban setting. “The administration paints ABAWDs as a group of people who can justifiably be cut off from assistance because they ought to be working, Maggie Dickinson writes. “But taking people who are unemployed off SNAP often does harm to more than just those who directly receive food assistance. Many of these people share their benefits with their family and social networks, including children and elderly family members. The ripple effects of the planned cuts will hurt this larger group of people too.”

Dickinson ran a hunger outreach program in New York City during the last recession; the city was one of the few places that enforced SNAP work requirements then, giving her an on-the-ground view of how ABAWDs often used their benefits. “I met lots of men who used their SNAP benefits to feed their children. Many of them lived with their kids, but many did not, and the government categorized this latter group as single adults without dependents,” Dickinson writes. “Among the people I encountered, these men reported some of the most severe problems with hunger, because they used their meager benefits to fulfill family obligations that the welfare administration did not recognize.”

In Letcher County, the impact of the changes is still unknown. Other state and local policies may help. The county has a waiver that lets it give benefits to people who qualify for other income-based benefits, and the local farmers’ market allows SNAP recipients to buy up to $40 of food for $20 in SNAP money. “The market also participates in a ‘Farmacy’ program with Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp., through which people with certain illnesses who meet income requirements obtain vouchers from their doctors to buy fresh food at the farmers’ market,” Adams reports.

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The Rural Blog is a digest of events, trends, issues, ideas and journalism from and about rural America, from the IRJCI, based at the University of Kentucky. The Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues is an extension program for rural journalists and news outlets. It takes no positions on issues and advocates only for strong news coverage, responsible commentary and things that make them possible, such as open-government laws. For more information see www.RuralJournalism.org.

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