090419-ce-foodstamp

The Gazette file

About 33,500 people in Colorado could be affected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposal to tighten eligibility requirements for the federal food stamp program, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.

Nearly 5,000 people in El Paso County and almost 200 more in Teller County could see their food stamps disappear under a proposed federal rule change potentially affecting millions nationwide.

In all, about 33,500 people in Colorado could be affected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposal to tighten eligibility requirements for the federal food stamp program, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services.

The benefits — which amount to about $60 a month for a family of three — are critical to ensuring that children and their parents get healthy food, do well in school and live healthy lives, said Ki’i Powell, director of the state agency’s Office of Economic Security.

“This particular policy would impact a lot of working families,” Powell said. “It is the families who typically are in low-income wage jobs, so we know that many of those families are one critical incident away from being in a crisis.”

Jason Dilger, executive director of Mercy’s Gate in Colorado Springs, said he feared the changes could push more people closer to homelessness. Sixty dollars a month can be critical to poor working families, considering the city’s rising cost of living and the area’s severe shortage of affordable housing.

Doing away with that financial help will only place a greater burden on the local safety net, Dilger said.

“Every penny makes a difference,” Dilger said. “Sixty dollars sounds like a significant hit.”

The public comment period for the proposed rule change ends Sept. 23.

Federal guidelines forbid people who make more than 130% of the poverty level from getting food stamps.

But many states believe the cap is too restrictive, especially in cities with a high cost of living, prompting them to bypass the limits. And for years, the federal government offered a workaround — policy that allowed states to exceed that 130% cap and broaden eligibility.

Colorado, for example, makes the program available to people earning twice the federal poverty level — or $42,660 for a family of three — if the state shares information about other government programs, such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, while enrolling people in food stamps.

Such expanded eligibility was encouraged by former President Barack Obama’s administration. Among other things, Obama’s administration said the expanded eligibility could help families stung by a weak economy and promote savings among low-income households.

Most states adopted the strategy. Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have either waived asset limits or set them above federal thresholds, according to the Agriculture Department.

But the department’s inspector general has raised concerns about the tactic. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the proposed rule change is intended to close a “loophole” that states have misused to “effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines.”

Powell said that tightening eligibility could have dire consequences. For example, children who are enrolled in food stamps also are eligible for free or reduced lunch at their school. By withholding food stamps from their families, about 11,000 children in Colorado could lose access to those lunches, Powell said.

“These types of changes to the policy ultimately are not beneficial for the families we serve,” she said.

Contact the writer: 476-1654

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