Mass. residents on food stamps could see benefits halved under Trump administration’s new proposal

“It’s just going to be tightening the belt more, and I don’t know how much more I can tighten it.”

Jackie spent most of her life working multiple jobs to make ends meet. Now 80, she lives in one of Massachusetts’s southern coastal towns and relies on benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to keep her stomach full.

An estimated one in nine Massachusetts residents is enrolled in SNAP, a federal program commonly known as food stamps and run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, SNAP helped keep 141,000 Massachusetts residents out of poverty between 2009 and 2012.

Across the commonwealth, the average SNAP recipient gets $1.38 in assistance per meal. That’s not enough to buy a small black coffee at Dunkin’ in downtown Boston.

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Each trip Jackie makes to the grocery store is a careful calculus as she runs the numbers to make the $81 she’s granted each month stretch far enough. She limits the amount of fresh produce and meat she buys, but still ends up with little left by the end of the month.

Under a newly proposed rule from the Trump Administration, Jackie could soon be granted much less than $81. The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute estimated that if the proposal goes through, her SNAP support would likely be cleaved in half.

“It’s just going to be tightening the belt more,” Jackie said of the possibility. “And I don’t know how much more I can tighten it.”

The new rule would change the way utility costs, such as heating and cooling, are calculated. While the USDA estimates benefits will be cut for 19 percent of households nationwide and increased for 16 percent, those cuts would primarily affect cold northern states where heating costs are high.

Since the 1970s, states have been allowed to estimate how much their residents spend on utilities each month. Under the proposed rule, the Agriculture Department would set a fixed allowance for each state based on its average utility costs.

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According to the department, standardizing the math would improve the integrity of SNAP and make it more equitable from state to state. It would also save the federal government an estimated $4.5 billion over five years.

But critics of the move say the changes would disproportionately harm low-income households in states where the cost of energy is especially steep, such as Massachusetts. 

Hard on Massachusetts

Largely unable to chip away at SNAP through Congress, the Trump administration has turned to executive action. This potential change is just the latest of three proposals designed to trim down the program, though experts say it’s the one that would hit Massachusetts the hardest. 

“The Trump administration has come up with yet another rotten scheme to attack working families and undermine opportunity for millions of Americans,” Rep. Jim McGovern said in a statement. “Though a benefit cut of $50 per household might not sound like a whole lot, it could literally mean the difference between food on the table and going to bed hungry for hundreds of thousands of Massachusetts families.”

Led by McGovern, every member of the Massachusetts congressional delegation signed a letter to the USDA’s secretary Monday voicing “strong opposition” of the proposed rule and how it could harm their constituents.

The Massachusetts Law Reform Institute estimated about 200,000 homes throughout the state would lose about $50 per month under the rule. Most of the affected households would include seniors and people with disabilities.

If the rule passes, Massachusetts could lose up to $102 million in SNAP support each year. State and local governments would then have to try to plug any holes created by a lack of federal funding.

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Catherine Drennan, a spokesperson for the Greater Boston Food Bank, remembered just barely being able to make things work without federal aid during this year’s record-breaking government shutdown. If SNAP benefits had been cut off, she’s not sure the food bank would have been able to meet the need.

The Greater Boston Food Bank estimated it hands out one emergency meal for every five SNAP provides. And the food bank handed out 57 million meals last year.

“If there’s any cut to SNAP, we will feel that in the emergency system,” Drennan said. “We will have to fill that void.”

Pat Baker, a senior policy advocate at MLRI, pointed out that people who are renting generally don’t have control of their heating systems and end up paying more. Or they don’t have the money to invest in their heating systems, going from tank to tank of oil instead of paying for a yearlong service. The new rule wouldn’t take these factors into consideration.

“The energy burden for our lowest income households in the commonwealth is extremely high,” she said. “We’re extremely worried about what this looks like, particularly as we’re coming into the winter season, where people really do face a heat-or-eat dilemma.” 

Jackie said worrying about these cuts has affected her mental and physical wellbeing. She’s angry that the people making the rules don’t seem to care about how they’re going to affect lives around the nation.

“I’m 80 years old, and at this point in my life it shouldn’t be like this,” she said. “I worked all my life.”

She said it’s difficult to understand how these changes can happen with what feels like so little pushback.

“For being such a progressive nation,” she said, “we’re certainly not progressive enough.”

The comment period for this proposed rule ends on December 2. You can submit comments to the USDA here or via mail.

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