SNAP guidelines to change
WORTHINGTON -- Starting Monday, an estimated 70,000 more Minnesotans will qualify for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, but it remains to be seen just how much additional work it will make for local agencies that administer the dollars.
Nobles County Family Services financial supervisor Mike Thies said the new guidelines, handed down by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will be based on 165 percent of the federal poverty guidelines -- an increase from the 130 percent guideline that had been used for many years.
The change means a household of one can now qualify for food assistance if monthly income before taxes is $1,490 or less.
For a family of two, the cutoff is $2,004, and for a family of four, gross monthly income cannot exceed $3,032.
"It means you can make more money," said Thies, adding that he has no idea how many more residents of Nobles County will qualify for food assistance.
Thies believes the biggest impact will stem from the removal of the asset limit for SNAP, which is known as the Food Support Program in Minnesota. In the past, individuals who had $2,000 or more in assets could not receive food aid. For the elderly or certified disabled, the maximum was $3,000.
"That's the big change," he said. "We're not looking at the (certificates of deposit) they may have, we're not looking at what's in that bank account. We're going strictly off their gross income."
Thies said the asset limitation was a barrier for many applicants in the past -- especially the elderly living on Social Security income.
Angela Larson, Community and Family Support Director for Western Community Action in Marshall, said there is a push in the state to get more eligible seniors enrolled in food assistance, but it's often a tough sell.
"People don't like the idea -- especially if they've worked hard their whole life and never needed any type of assistance," Larson said, noting the stigma that often accompanies food assistance. "The fact that they're not able to make ends meet as an older person, they don't want others to know that -- they don't want to ask for help."
Even if people got beyond the stigma, Larson said the forms for the program were quite daunting -- there used to be a 30-page application, and people needed to provide copies of documents proving their income. While some of that information is still required, the process has improved "immensely," she said.
For a long time, rumors that applicants would only get $10 a month if they applied also kept people away.
Larson said one of the most important things she tells people is that SNAP funds are federal dollars that will not come to Minnesota unless those eligible for assistance apply.
"This is federal money that sits there if our state doesn't request the money," she said.
A report released in April by the Minneapolis office of the Boston Consulting Group showed the state is leaving $210 million in food and money on the table by not enrolling all of Minnesota's eligible residents in the food aid program. The report further stated just 45 percent (302,000 of 670,000 income-eligible Minnesota residents) accessed SNAP funds in 2008.
In Nobles County, the percent of eligible people accessing SNAP is even lower than the state average. In 2007, Larson said Nobles County had 1,074 residents receiving food aid, which was 21.7 percent of the county's eligible residents. In 2008, 1,168 residents (23.6 percent of those eligible) were enrolled, and in 2009, 1,498 received aid (31.4 percent of those eligible).
Percentages of eligible residents accessing SNAP funds is not available for neighboring counties because their populations are less than 20,000, but Larson said Murray County had just 355 residents accessing SNAP in 2009. Rock County was slightly higher with 389 residents, followed by Jackson at 475 residents, Pipestone at 654 residents and Cottonwood County at 685 residents.
"There are folks that are choosing between their heat and their food, or their medicine and their food," said Larson. "That's the easiest way to skimp -- to buy lower-cost food or not as much -- but it's not the healthiest."
Larson said if more people could be encouraged to apply, it would provide a boost to the state's economy. The money received for SNAP to spend on food helps out local grocery stores and creates jobs.
With another 70,000 Minnesotans expected to be eligible for food assistance when the new guidelines take effect on Monday, Larson said there is some concern in human services offices across the state on how to deal with the potential increase in their caseload.
"They're adding all these eligible people, but they're not adding any staff at county offices to help with the influx of people," she said. "That's a scare across the state."
At the Human Services office in Worthington, Thies encourages people to stop by the agency, located on the second floor of the Nobles County Government Center, and request an application.
"They fill out a one-page sheet, and we set up an appointment time for an interview with them," Thies said.
People can also call and request an application be sent to them.
"Now that we're not asking for all of those verifications, it should be a much simpler process," he added.