Opponents say a House bill would cut off low-income Minnesotans from food, but its sponsor said that’s not the point of the proposed legislation.
The House Health and Humans Services Finance Committee approved the bill Wednesday on a 13-8 roll call vote along party lines. It now goes to the House Ways and Means Committee.
SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is a federal benefit that serves the function people think of when they say “food stamps.” It provides low-income individuals and families with money specifically to buy food. Benefits are given by adding money to a person’s EBT card, essentially a debit card for SNAP.
The Department of Human Services administers SNAP on the state level, and counties do it on the local level. Federal law says able-bodied adults without dependents must comply with work requirements if they want to get SNAP benefits for more than three months in a three-year period. However, states can get a waiver from the federal government to exempt certain geographical areas from the work requirement, if unemployment is above 10 percent in the area, or it lacks enough jobs.
In Minnesota, 29 counties (almost all of them rural) and 12 American Indian reservations are exempt from the work requirement as of Fiscal Year 2018.
Fenton’s bill might lower that number because it would require the department to study unemployment data in each of those counties and reservations and then get rid of the waivers for regions that don’t meet the federal employment requirements.
The fiscal note for the bill said it would have a marginal financial impact to the state.
Jessica Webster, staff attorney with the Legal Services Advocacy Project, said the bill would be more stringent than federal law. She said the proposal gives her “heartache” because 47,000 able-bodied Minnesota adults without dependents have already lost access to food since the work requirement was reinstated in 2013.
Only 6,000 Minnesotans under the work requirement still use SNAP, Webster said — a loss of service she called a tragedy. In addition, she said the many exemptions associated with the work requirement created an administrative nightmare for counties to operate SNAP.
DFL legislators pointed out a section of the bill they said would add a new waiver requirement. It would require the Human Services Department to confirm from the Department of Employment and Economic Development that economic conditions in a particular region made the work requirement “untenable.” Opponents pointed out it was unclear what exactly “untenable” meant in terms of requirements.
There were no testifiers in favor of the bill, but Fenton said her motive was preventing people from losing SNAP benefits because areas might not be in compliance with the waiver requirements.
“I do believe that it’s important for our [commissioners at DEED and DHS] to work together on this issue, so that we can preserve this program for those who really need it,” Fenton said.