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Food insecurity, food-stamp use rising; state and federal policies changing

by Tim Anderson ~ October 2013~ Stateline Midwest »
In the shadows of the highly publicized congressional battle over the future of the nation's largest food-assistance program, a handful of states in the Midwest have moved ahead this year with changes of their own.
This heightened attention to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — or food stamps, as they are still often called — is occurring on the heels of significant rises in the number of “food-insecure” households and the number of people receiving assistance.
In every Midwestern state, for example, more households report having difficulty providing enough food to family members compared to a decade ago (see bar graph). And between 2008 and 2012, average monthly SNAP participation rates in the 11-state Midwest have risen anywhere from 21.4 percent in North Dakota to 83.3 percent in Minnesota (see map).
An increase in SNAP rates is not surprising considering the recent recession: Participation rises with economic downturns. During these periods, too, the federal government allows states to waive certain work requirements for able-bodied adults without children who live in high-unemployment areas. Without this waiver, these adults receive a maximum of three months of SNAP benefits over a three-year period; after three months, the benefits end without participation in work or job training.
Every state in the Midwest has sought and secured these federal waivers. However, states such as Kansas, Ohio and Wisconsin have now decided to end their waivers, citing improved economic conditions and a desire to tie SNAP benefits to work or job training.
“It is important that we do more than just provide a monetary food assistance benefit,” says Michael Colber, director of the Department of Job and Family Services in Ohio, where the waiver will still apply in some select economically depressed counties.
Under legislation passed by the U.S. House in September, the waiver would be removed as an option for all states.
That same measure would also restrain SNAP enrollment by eliminating another policy option for states — the authority to expand eligibility beyond traditional income and asset limits. As the map to the right shows, most states in the region have used this flexibility to expand the reach of their food-stamp programs.
In Michigan, North Dakota and Wisconsin, for example, eligibility has been extended to households with gross incomes as high as 200 percent of the federal poverty line, according to a September 2013 Congressional Research Service study.
As of late September, the fate of the federal waiver and the flexibility of states to offer broad-based eligibility was unclear. Meanwhile, an expiring provision of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will mean lower benefits for all SNAP recipients beginning in November.
Amid the talk about SNAP cuts, some states have explored ways to expand participation. For example, the Illinois Commission to End Hunger (the result of 2010 state legislation, SB 3158) released a series of recommendations last year that included improving SNAP outreach, hiring more caseworkers, and integrating SNAP eligibility into the process for determining health insurance eligibility under the Affordable Care Act.
“Thousands of eligible individuals are not accessing the [benefits] they are entitled to receive,” the Illinois commission said in its 2012 study.