Baring Our Cupboards: How will proposed changes to food assistance affect Rhode Islanders?

At the tail end of last year, the Rhode Island Community Food Bank released its hunger facts and figures going into 2020, which say that 11% of households (47,700) statewide are unable to afford adequate food, and 4.7% of them go hungry. There are 148,000 Rhode Islanders enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), with an average SNAP benefit of $223 per month. Of those who use the network of food pantries, two-thirds are senior citizens or children. Fifty-three thousand Rhode Islanders use a food pantry every month, a number that has yet to return to the levels that existed before the 2009 Great Recession. And it’s about to get worse in the Ocean State.

The Trump administration has proposed several changes to how SNAP benefits are administered. “You are taking the most vulnerable people and saying, ‘No you can’t eat,’” says Kathleen Gorman, a professor of psychology and director of the Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America at the University of Rhode Island. President Trump has proposed several administrative changes, each with the capacity to impact thousands of Rhode Islanders in different ways. The most recent change is to work requirements for able bodied adults without dependents (ABWD). The new proposal states they have to work 20 hours a week in order to retain their SNAP benefits; otherwise, they only are eligible for SNAP three months out of a 36-month period.

State governments could always request a waiver for the requirements, citing reasons like high unemployment (RI had 15% unemployment during the recession). President Obama issued a blanket waiver nationwide in the wake of the Great Recession, but over the past few years, states have applied for waivers routinely. “No place in RI will be eligible for a waiver because the rates will be so high,” says Gorman. “DHS is saying 7,300 will only be eligible for three months of SNAP out of every 36. That’s a substantial number of people and I wouldn’t bet my life that’s the actual correct number.”


Trump is also changing the rules regarding broad-based categorical eligibility. “It’s gonna change the income guidelines that allow you to be eligible for SNAP,” says Gorman. “I’ve seen numbers and they’re rough, but around 10,000 households in RI would lose their benefits.” The income guidelines account for gross and net incomes. What it does is let families work and earn a little bit of money and keep their benefits. Asset tests would return under the proposed rules. Families with savings above a certain amount would essentially have to spend them in order to continue receiving food stamps. “Asset tests are gonna hurt seniors and we don’t know how many,” says Gorman. “Rhode Island doesn’t keep data on assets.” Seniors as a group themselves are less likely to use a local food pantry.

Categorical eligibility rule changes will also affect any families with children who receive free breakfast and lunch at school. DHS communicates with the RI Department of Education to automatically enroll the children of SNAP families into free lunch programs. “If all this goes away, a lot of families are all gonna have to apply and fill out paperwork and that becomes onerous and difficult,” says Gorman. Nationwide estimates say half a million to a million children will be affected under these new rules; at least 5,000 of those will be in Rhode Island.

The third proposed change is the state utility allowance for heating and electricity. Previously, the USDA would accept different calculations from all states, but under the new Trump rules, all the states have to follow a uniform calculation. Rhode Island has higher utility costs than other states, and SNAP recipients will see their benefits drop without our higher costs being taken into account. “We’re gonna take a big hit.” says Gorman. “It won’t necessarily kick people off, but about 40% of the clients who have SNAP will see a decrease in their benefits.” SNAP calculations vary widely depending on personal situations, but right now the average comes out to $50 less a month per person. In Rhode Island an estimated 38,000 households will see a cut in SNAP benefits.

Policies like these put a strain on the food bank and food pantries, but the true cost of the proposed changes is still unknown. “No one’s been able as far as I can tell to look at: are these separate groups of people or will the same people be affected over and over?” says Gorman. “How are all these horrible things made to pile on top of each other?” Rhode Island employment has improved since the Great Recession, but the recovery hasn’t helped everyone equally.

While Rhode Island is generous in supporting the food bank, Gorman has concerns. “It’s a Band-Aid,” she says. “It helps, but it doesn’t solve the problem.” Hunger has further consequences down the line. It’s the latest policy directed at immigrants, who will be afraid and more reticent to ask for help. Stores in the local economy that accept EBT will see a dip in sales. Kids’ school performances will suffer because they’re hungry. Cutting SNAP benefits and social services come with negative public health outcomes. Happy new fear.