State Capitol

The Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg.

HARRISBURG — A Trump administration proposal intended to reduce fraud in the food stamp program is a “cruel and mean-spirited” move that will make it harder for 200,000 Pennsylvanians to get needed food, Pennsylvania Secretary of Human Services Teresa Miller said Monday.

Pennsylvania has been using the broad-based categorical eligibility rule to offer assistance to people who earn a little more than the normal limit for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, traditionally know as the food stamp program, Miller said.

"We strongly oppose any and all attacks on SNAP and will continue to fight against any attempt to take the program away from Pennsylvanians who need it,” she said.

In Pennsylvania, people have been able to get food stamps if their income is up to 160 percent of the federal poverty level, instead of the 130 percent limit standard, according to Miller.

A family of four had been eligible for food stamps in Pennsylvania if they earned up to $40,000 a year, Miller said. Under the new proposal, that limit would drop to $32,000.

There is some support for the change.

“Pennsylvania uses a bunch of tools in the form of federal flexibility, to qualify as many people as possible,” said Elizabeth Stelle, director of policy analysis for the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg-based conservative advocacy organization that supports the rule change.

Stelle said efforts to improve the efficiency of welfare programs are welcome.

“We don’t want to inadvertently make it easier to scam the system,” she said.

In a July statement announcing the proposal, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said the rule change is intended to crack down on states that “have misused this flexibility without restraint.”

Perdue said the aim is to ensure that the aid is available for those who need it the most.

“That is why we are changing the rules, to prevent abuse of critical safety net systems,” he said.

Miller said fraud in food stamp programs is rare. U.S. Department of Agriculture data show 99 percent of those using food stamps are entitled to the benefit, Miller said.

Monday, the lobbying arm for the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania came out against the proposed SNAP rule change as well.

The change “would penalize people seeking to establish savings and discourage individuals from securing more gainful employment,” said Eric Failing, executive director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference. “There is no excuse that in our first-world country we have children who are malnourished. Yet this proposed rule, rather than address these issues, will make them far worse.”

Miller said the impact of the change will be felt statewide.

The Department of Human Services estimates that 2,630 people in Cambria County risk losing their access to food stamps under the rule change, said Erin James, a Department of Human Services spokeswoman. In other rural counties, the impact will be similar: 1,401 food stamp recipients are at risk of losing the benefit in Crawford County; in Lawrence County it’s 1,564; in Mercer County, in Venango County, 926; and in Warren County, 634, she said.

Miller said the implications could be even broader because 22,600 families are automatically enrolled in free school lunch programs because they get food stamps.

Sam Adolpshen, policy director for the Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based think tank that called for the rule change, said as the economy’s improved, the Trump administration’s proposal is appropriate.

In 2000, there were about 800,000 people in Pennsylvania who were receiving food stamps. Now, there are about 1.6 million people getting food stamps, he said.

“There are jobs that need workers,” he said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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