Residents across Cape Ann and the North Shore who are able-bodied adults without children will not be immediately affected by a new rule that limits or eliminates one’s access to food stamps. 

In December, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced the finalization of a work rule that limits or stops specific recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from receiving food stamps if they work fewer than 20 hours a week. 

Unless halted by court, the restrictions will go into effect nationwide on April 1 and people within the described category will to lose SNAP benefits starting July 1.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides monthly supplements for purchasing food to unemployed adults who are not disabled or raising children. The goal of the new work rule, according to the USDA, is to help move these individuals toward self-sufficiency. 

“If this first rule change is not halted, there is no immediate impact here in Gloucester, where the able-bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD) rule is already in effect, but across the state people currently covered by a waiver could start to lose their SNAP benefits as early as July 1,” said Julie LaFontaine, executive director of The Open Door, which operates food pantries in Gloucester and Ipswich. 

Under the current rule, individuals within this category may receive SNAP benefits for a maximum of three months during a three-year period, unless they are working, volunteering or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month.  

Although a statewide waiver that exempts cities and towns from this work rule expired in December 2015, Gloucester remained covered for 2016 and 2017 due to its high unemployment rates. This waiver meant that Gloucester residents who were 18- to 49-year-old able-bodied adults without children were still able to attain SNAP benefits even if they worked fewer than 20 hours a week. 

For the past two years, from 2018 to 2019, LaFontaine said Gloucester has not had this waiver and has been subject to the new work rule. 

According to the state's official website, 83 cities and towns in Massachusetts are eligible for a waiver until the end of this March.

Gloucester, Rockport, Manchester, Essex, Beverly, Salem, Peabody, and Danvers are not among those that are eligible. 

Difficult times

The new work rule, according to the USDA, amends the regulatory standards by which the USDA would waive the work rule and limits carryover of ABAWD discretionary exemptions.

The USDA explained that, in an effort to move these individuals toward self-sufficiency and into employment, the new rule "restores the system to what Congress intended: Assistance through difficult times, not a way of life."

"Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch. Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand," U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said.  

LaFontaine, however, sees this new rule as creating additional hurdles rather than extending a helping hand.

"I think that as the leader of an organization that provides food security in a socially acceptable way for people, we want to make things easier, not harder," she said. "When I heard of the rule changes, I thought that people who are already hit hard are going to be struggling harder.”

LaFontaine reports that annual requests to The Open Door for food assistance have more than doubled since 2008. She attributes some of the increase to an additional category of people being served.

“Our reality is that we are serving people at the ‘poverty’ level and those in the ‘meal’ gap — that is, working people who are having trouble keeping food on the table,” she said recently. “We have also seen a 17 percent increase in the number of times people access our services.”

Last year, The Open Door provided 1.65 million meals — almost 2 million pounds of food — to 8,000 people through its Mobile Market and food pantry, she added. In 2017, its Ipswich pantry  provided 179,907 pounds of food to 746 people from 377 households.

LaFontaine is not the only one with qualms about this new law.

Other proposed cuts

Attorney General Maura Healey joined a lawsuit in January opposing the proposed restriction, claiming that new rule undermines Congress' intent for the program. The suit also argues that the USDA violated the federal rule-making process because the rules were made without adequate justification and have changed since they were proposed.

The lawsuit claims that the new rule undermines the program's intent by "disallowing waivers based on a state's showing that a certain geographic area offers jobs for ABAWDs."

"These rules will prevent people from getting food they need and force many to make incredibly difficult financial choices," Healey said. "We are suing to protect our residents and prevent these cruel restrictions from going into effect."

This rule is one of three related to the Trump administration's efforts to cut SNAP. 

The other two rules have not been issued. 

Broad Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE) would restrict states' option to allow low-wage worker households with gross income above 130% of the federal poverty level to qualify, even if households has very low net income. 

The last rule, Standard Utility Allowance (SUA), would require the USDA to set the heating/cooling SUA based on a federal methodology. States are not allowed to use state energy data to inform the federal calculation. 

“Poverty is a complex issue,” LaFontaine said. "A ruling like this only makes it harder for someone to put their foot on a path towards success."

Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford can be reached at 978-675-2705 or tbradford@northofboston.com.

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