ST. PAUL -- An effort by the Trump administration to “restore the dignity of work” means tens of thousands of Minnesotans could see cuts or a total loss of federal food-stamp benefits.
In 2019, about 376,000 Minnesotans received help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, that’s commonly referred to as food stamps. It cost about $516 million for Minnesota to administer that aid and nearly all the money came from the federal government.
“Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in December. “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”
State officials and hunger advocates worry the pending changes will hurt some of the state’s most vulnerable residents. Roughly 38,000 recipients could lose their food stamps altogether and 150,000 could see reductions in their monthly aid.
Hunger is not just a metro problem. Some of the Minnesota counties with the highest percentage of residents receiving food stamps are in parts of rural Minnesota where finding reliable work remains difficult for many.
“What these cuts will do is literally take food off Minnesota tables,” said Allison O’Toole, CEO of Second Harvest Heartland, a hunger advocate. “It means more hungry neighbors. More people will need more help.”
Second Harvest provided about 97 million meals last year across the heartland, O’Toole noted. But SNAP provided nine times that many.
“If that demand is coming our way, we will simply be overwhelmed,” she said.
The new rules for the federal food-stamp program include three significant changes that will impact who qualifies and how much aid they receive. There are currently different eligibility rules for parents and individuals without children.
States will be required to thoroughly examine applicants’ assets, not just their incomes. States had been given a waiver for this in the past because it was so time-consuming. Federal rules say families with more than about $3,000 in assets — such as equity in a home or a retirement account — could risk losing benefits. State officials estimate about 35,000 Minnesotans could lose benefits because of this change.
Childless adults without physical or mental disabilities will no longer be able to receive food stamps for more than three months out of a three-year period without working, volunteering or training for a job. There had been a waiver program for counties with high unemployment or other exacerbating circumstances, but it’s being modified and the number of Minnesota counties that qualify will shrink from more than two dozen to four. “Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work,” Secretary Perdue said in December. “This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.” About 2,000 Minnesotans are expected to lose food assistance because of this change. Minnesota is one of 15 states suing to stop the change.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture plans to change how utility costs, such as heat and water bills, will be considered when calculating an applicant’s income for food-stamp eligibility. In the past, Minnesotans could deduct nearly $500 a month from their incomes for utility bills. The change will set a federal rate that is the same for all states, so Minnesotans can deduct as much as Floridians.
The Trump administration estimates the changes will save federal taxpayers about $1 billion a year from the $70 billion a year program.
Hunger advocates and some Democratic lawmakers have called the changes “cruel” and will do more bad than good. They don’t just worry more Minnesotans will go hungry, they also fear changes in food-stamp eligibility will mean families struggling to make ends meet will also lose access to other support programs like free and reduced-price school meals.
“These are people who are really in dire need,” said Lisa Bayley, acting assistant commissioner for children and family services for the state. “We are very concerned it will have a ripple effect that far outweighs the benefit.”
Food stamps and other hunger programs have been “a blessing” for Terrence Watkins, who fell on hard times after losing two sons to violence. Struggling with drugs and alcohol, Watkins was living in his car before he reached out to the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul for help.
“It gave me hope,” Watkins said. “The assistance I got, to help myself, also helped me stay away from drinking and drugs. I started feeling more hope by having that extra help.”
Watkins says he was “stunned” to learn of the pending changes. Finding steady work with a living wage is tough for people struggling with homelessness, substance abuse or other challenges, he said.
“I don’t know how that’s going to work. Even with SNAP, I have to revert to food shelves,” Watkins said. “It’s scary. They’re taking away what little we have.”
Recipients and costs declining
The number of Minnesotans depending on food stamps and how much the state spends on the program has steadily declined over the past decade, data from the state Department of Human Services show.
Average monthly participation in the program peaked at about 518,000 in 2014. It has fallen about 24 percent since then to about 393,000 in 2019.
Spending on food stamps, nearly all of which comes from Washington, D.C., is also falling.
In 2013, Minnesotans received about $828 million in benefits when inflation is included. Last year, about $516 million was paid out.
The amount of assistance is also on the decline. In 2010, the average recipient got $144 a month in today’s dollars; today, the average benefit is $109.
Acting Commissioner Bayley says the improved economy is the reason for some of that decline. But she noted that past changes to the food-stamp program have also resulted in cuts to the number of people who are eligible and how much they receive.
O’Toole noted that the better economy hasn’t helped all Minnesotans equally. Many still struggle to find steady work that pays a living wage.
“Food shelves are recording more visits than ever before,” she said.
Rob Undersander, of Waite Park, Minn., is one example of why some lawmakers and government officials say the food-stamp program needs to be reformed. Undersander is a millionaire on paper because of all his assets.
But he was able to collect food stamps for about two years because he had no monthly income. Undersander told lawmakers in the Minnesota House during a 2018 committee hearing that he signed up for food stamps to “audit the program” and received about $6,000 in benefits.
“I have obviously gotten your attention,” he told outraged lawmakers, who were frustrated they couldn’t prosecute him.
Bayley says there are very few people like Undersander who are gaming the system, to prove a point or otherwise. She says checking the assets of food-stamp recipients will likely cost much more than it ends up saving.
“Most of these recipients are hard-working Minnesotans in need of help,” Bayley said. “We always have to be aware of the potential for fraud. That’s not where we see great issues arising.”
Hunger advocates hold out hope that the Trump administration can be convinced to reverse these changes or that Congress will step in to stop them, but time is running short. The new rules are expected to begin being enforced by spring, and it could mean as many as 700,000 people nationwide could lose access to food stamps altogether.
Jodi Harpstead, state human services commissioner, recently wrote to all 10 members of Minnesota’s congressional delegation asking them to try to stop the new rules from taking effect.
“SNAP is the most effective anti-hunger program in the nation and it is once again under significant threat,” Harpstead wrote. “My hope is that there is some way to block implementation of this harmful policy change.”
Several Minnesota Democrats have decried the changes publicly — including U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Tina Smith and Gov. Tim Walz and Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan. But it’s unclear if there’s bipartisan support to stop them from being implemented.
“If you take away this food support, a lot of people are going to be hungry,” said Watkins, who relies on SNAP and other assistance programs.
“There’s a whole lot of people out there just like me,” he added.