PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The Trump administration is proposing a pair of changes to food stamp regulations that could jeopardize benefits for thousands of Rhode Islanders, according to Courtney Hawkins, the director of the R.I. Department of Human Services.
“We could see people lose their SNAP benefits altogether and then another wave of people who still have their SNAP benefits be cut drastically by these two proposed rules,” Hawkins told Target 12, using the acronym for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, announced a plan this week to set standard utility allowances to streamline the way states calculate benefits and deductions.
“Utility costs vary across the country, but the great discrepancies we see in SNAP allowances mean that folks living a few miles apart across state lines may see a big difference in their benefit amounts,” said U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. “We are working to improve integrity and fairness in our assistance programs.”
The USDA said the rule would also replace an outdated telephone allowance with a new telecommunications allowance to cover basic internet costs.
Hawkins said the proposed change would likely mean an across-the-board cut for Rhode Islanders who currently receive utility deductions, which is a majority of the state’s SNAP recipients.
“Right now, states have the ability to set our own deduction and we think that’s important,” she said. “We understand the expenses that our residents experience and we should be able to set those rates based on what we know.”
In July, the USDA proposed another change that would limit automatic SNAP eligibility for people who qualify for other benefits.
“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines,” Purdue said in a statement in July. “That is why we are changing the rules, preventing abuse of a critical safety net system, so those who need food assistance the most are the only ones who receive it.”
According to the USDA, the move would save billions of taxpayer dollars.
An analysis by Hawkins’ department shows a Rhode Island parent with two children could lose SNAP eligibility if he or she earns $14.84 an hour.
In a letter to the federal government opposing the rule change, Hawkins argued an estimated 11,000 Rhode Islanders would lose access to SNAP benefits.
“We know that most of the people affected by this are working families who are not earning enough money in their jobs to put food on their table and pay for their rent,” Hawkins said. “As a mom myself, I can’t imagine what it feels like to not be able to provide food for my kid and that’s what’s being put at risk right now.”
The USDA says Rhode Island has not reported current SNAP enrollment since February 2018, as the state struggled with the UHIP computer system debacle. But enrollment rose significantly during and after the Great Recession, from 78,050 in 2007 to a peak of 180,000 in 2013. It was 170,000 in 2016.
U.S. Sens. Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, both Democrats, sent a letter to Perdue last month urging him not to move forward with the SNAP changes.
“The proposed revisions could jeopardize the health and well-being of thousands of Rhode Islanders and millions of Americans across the country and penalize those who are working hard to build assets and achieve self sufficiency,” they wrote.
The senators also pointed out that the same proposals had been rejected by Congress during the debates over the 2014 and 2018 farm bills.
Congressmen David Cicilline and Jim Langevin, both Democrats, have also weighed in against the new rules.