Baltimore resident Ella M. Scovens didn’t mince words voicing her opposition to a proposal to remove 3.1 million people from a federal food assistance program. Why would the federal government “have the audacity to take our food” and put the well-being of the nation’s children in jeopardy, the 79-year-old widow asked.
Scovens, Baltimore Mayor Bernard C. “Jack” Young and other advocates criticized the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed eligibility changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — or SNAP, but formerly known as food stamps — at the Zeta Center for Healthy and Active Aging in Northwest Baltimore on Thursday.
The rule change could eliminate benefits for 15,000 of the 166,000 city residents who receive SNAP benefits, Young and others said. Statewide, more than 50,000 Maryland residents could lose their benefits, said Michael Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions. Roughly 627,000 Marylanders receive SNAP benefits per month, according to the Maryland Department of Human Services.
The proposal would revise the use of “broad-based categorical eligibility” to determine who can receive SNAP benefits. Under the current rules in more than 40 states, including Maryland, if someone qualifies for other federal or state aid programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, they also qualify for SNAP.
Maryland households with income below 200% of the federal poverty line qualify for non-cash TANF benefits — which can include transportation, child care or subsidized employment — and are therefore eligible for SNAP benefits, according to state rules. The current federal poverty level is $25,750 for a family of four, according to federal rules.
But under the Trump administration’s proposed change, households would have to be eligible for at least $50 a month in TANF benefits for at least six months to automatically qualify for SNAP. The USDA says some people, including those in Maryland, qualify for TANF — and therefore SNAP — but receive only minimal benefits, such as informational brochures. Those people could lose SNAP benefits if the rules are changed.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in July the proposed rule would remove “loopholes” giving food stamps to people who wouldn’t otherwise qualify. The rule would cut five-year spending on SNAP by roughly $9.4 billion.
Katherine Morris, a spokeswoman for the state human services department, said Wednesday that it’s “premature” for the department to estimate how the change could impact Maryland SNAP recipients because the department is still examining the proposal’s "potential impact.” She said while someone may have been deemed categorically eligible for SNAP benefits, it doesn’t necessarily mean they wouldn’t have been found eligible under the regular SNAP application process.
But opponents are organizing against the proposal. Young, Washington, D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and colleagues from the United States Conference of Mayors sent a letter opposing the change to the USDA on Aug. 21. Maryland Hunger Solutions and other groups also are mobilizing.
“A threat to SNAP is a threat to the health and well-being of our children, our older adults and our families as a whole,” city health commissioner Dr. Letitia Dzirasa said.
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More than 13,000 seniors in Baltimore live at or below the poverty line, Dzirasa said. Many more of them are above the poverty line, but Dzirasa said those adults still fall within the existing SNAP eligibility requirements.
The Trump administration’s proposed rule would cut benefits for 2,900 older adults, or 13% of the Baltimore households with at least one older adult receiving SNAP, Dzirasa said.
Betsy Simon, founding director of the Zeta Healthy Aging Partnership, said these older adults within the “gray area" still lack the resources to get by, forcing them to make a “cruel” choice between paying bills or buying food with their income.
“The proposed changes to SNAP would make the lives of these ‘gray area’ older adults worse,” Simon said.
Scovens said she’s “greatly blessed” to be among those who don’t use SNAP, but she said she was taught to be concerned with the well-being of others.
“We are struggling as it is,” Scovens said. "They talk about our children doing this and doing that, but how are they going to do [anything] if they’re hungry?”
The proposal’s public comment period, which ends Sept. 23, has so far drawn more than 13,000 comments. The government will respond to feedback in its final revision of the proposal, which will be adopted or postponed.