These are prepared remarks to be delivered to the Senate Legislative Oversight Committee this morning.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in New Jersey. In the past few years, the state has acted not once, but twice, to reduce these crucial benefits, which are completely funded by the federal government. The state’s decisions, make no mistake, will increase hunger for thousands of New Jerseyans.
The state’s actions are all the more severe because they come right after the federal government cut SNAP benefits for everyone in November 2013. SNAP also serves the most vulnerable people in our state, and further cuts to the program will continue to push these families further to the brink. About three quarters of all households receiving SNAP in New Jersey have incomes below the federal poverty level – about $20,000 a year for a family of three – and about one third of all households include families with elderly or disabled members. In short, this is not a program that can sustain any more cuts.
The state cut SNAP in two ways.
First, it decided not to extend the so-called “Heat and Eat” program, which made it easier for New Jerseyans to receive a higher level of SNAP benefits even if they had difficulty documenting their energy costs. A disproportionate number of these households included the elderly and disabled.
The federal Farm Bill passed in 2014 allowed states to maintain their Heat and Eat programs, as long as states provided $21 per household in energy assistance to trigger the SNAP option. We estimated this would cost New Jersey about $3.2 million annually, but would save up to $170 million in federal SNAP benefits. Because of the multiplier effect of SNAP benefits, we also estimated up to a $300 million economic drag from this cut.
Maintaining the Heat and Eat program should have been an easy decision for New Jersey. Making it even more of a no-brainer was the fact that the state apparently had federal funds in its Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program that could have covered the modest state cost. In the end, most states with a Heat the Eat program decided to continue it, including our neighboring states, Pennsylvania and New York.
Second, the state recently decided not to apply for a waiver to time limits on SNAP for able-bodied childless adults. If these individuals don’t meet new work requirements for just three months they will now lose access to nutritional benefits for three years. Such an overly harsh penalty is not needed because SNAP already includes work requirements for all able-bodied adults which could be implemented by the state without triggering such a major loss in benefits. It is also unfair because the three-month time limit also applies to individuals who are working part time or are doing everything they can to search for employment.
While the state could not apply for a statewide waiver because its unemployment rate improved, it could have applied for a waiver for those areas of the state that still had high unemployment. About two-thirds of the states have already applied for similar local waivers. In New Jersey, those areas include 15 counties and five municipalities, which would have covered about 80 percent of the 11,000 New Jerseyans who the state estimates will be affected by this time limit. The average benefit for these individuals is about $160 a month.
Theoretically these individuals could continue to receive their benefits as long as they participate in a work activity for 20 or more hours a week as arranged by the state. However, is unclear whether the state has enough slots or the right type of slots in work activities to meet this requirement. Unfortunately, even if the state does not have the capability of providing these work activities the individuals still become ineligible for SNAP. Many of them will also not be able to find employment for themselves because they do not have the skills or education. For example nationally only about 40 percent of childless adults in SNAP have a high school diploma or GED. Many people will drop out simply because they cannot deal with the increased bureaucracy. The state also has broad latitude to determine exemptions, such as for disabilities, but again it is unclear whether the state will use this new flexibility. As a result of the decision not to apply for these waivers it is likely the state will lose millions of dollars in federal SNAP benefits that would have helped many avoid hunger and stimulated the state’s economy.
We strongly recommend that the state submit a waiver for those childless adults in SNAP who live in high unemployment areas of the state. There is still time to do so. If that is not possible, we urge that legislation be introduced to at least require that the state monitor on a monthly basis, and make public, the status of all able-boded childless adults in SNAP by county and the extent to which the state provided the work activities they needed to avoid the three-year loss of their benefits. This will not only promote transparency and accountability, but such data would be helpful to community organizations who will need to provide food for those individual who lose their SNAP.