Bill could drastically change eligibility for food stamps in N.H.

  • Lenny Virgin stocks the bread shelf with donations at the Gospel Light Food Pantry on Hall Street in Concord on Feb. 15, 2017. The pantry assisted a record 43 clients on the last Saturday of January. “The need is growing,” Betsey said. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

Monitor staff
Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A new bill that would change the requirements to get food stamps in New Hampshire could have dramatic impact on the welfare program.

Depending on whom you ask, it’s either needed reform or a devastating move that could throw 17,000 people in the state off food assistance.

The bill, introduced by state Sen. Kevin Avard, a Republican from Nashua, would change the way the state’s Department of Health and Human Services evaluates families for the food stamp program, requiring them to use federal limits for food stamp eligibility.

The legislation also requires individuals receiving food stamps to pay their child support.

The latter provision is something Avard vocally supports; it affects his family personally. He said during his testimony that his daughter is owed $29,000 in child support.

“That affects my grandchildren,” Avard said. “We need to reverse that trend, we need to support the parents that have dependent children.”

Advocates say the legislation would be a good first step in welfare reform in New Hampshire and would incentivize more people to get off assistance and seek jobs. Opponents argue that the state’s food assistance program is already very targeted and not easily abused, adding that the bill would predominantly affect families who are working, but still struggling to pay their bills.

“(Senate Bill) 7 is directed at struggling working poor families with children,” said Sarah Mattson Dustin, staff attorney for New Hampshire Legal Assistance. “They’re working, but they still can’t make ends meet with the high cost of basic needs.”

Officials estimate the move could affect 17,000 people in the state who currently receive food assistance.

Currently, food stamps are available only to low-income people who make 130 percent of the federal poverty level or less, or $2,184 a month to support a family of three. Those people are also supposed to have limited resources – savings of $2,250 or less – in order to qualify.

New Hampshire also has something called “expanded categorical eligibility,” a designation for families who make more than the income limit, but who have high enough expenses for things like child care that they technically qualify for assistance. The bill would get rid of that expanded eligibility.

The bill’s opponents say that to change the system would hurt these families and children.

In New Hampshire, families who qualify for expanded assistance must have children – a provision that differs from many other states.

A Department of Health and Human Services official from neighboring Maine testified in support of the bill at Tuesday’s hearing.

“Welfare for able-bodied adults should be temporary,” said Sam Adolphsen, the commissioner of finance for Maine DHHS. “Those who can go to work should work.”

Under Republican Gov. Paul LePage, Maine has put in welfare reforms including work and volunteer requirements and a $5,000 cap on savings and assets for food stamp recipients. Government officials there argue that people should buy food with their savings before they turn to government welfare.

Adolphsen, a former conservative political activist, spoke glowingly about the reforms put in by LePage, saying the state has led the country for a decline in people on food stamps and seen a spike in the number of people getting jobs as a result.

“They didn’t just disappear; they went to work,” Adolphsen said. “A job truly lifted them out of poverty.”

However, Maine’s reforms have been controversial. For instance, even though the state has reduced the number of people who get food stamps, it’s still receiving millions of dollars in federal food assistance that it is not spending.

A report by the Portland Press Herald found the state has amassed $155 million in unspent federal funds for needy families, which it has unsuccessfully tried to divert to programs to help the elderly.

The number of children in Maine who benefit from the program has dropped from 22,425 in 2012 to 8,461 in 2016, but there are still about 19,000 kids living in extreme poverty in Maine, the Press Herald reported.

Representatives from the New Hampshire Food Bank testified that they are concerned municipalities would have to pick up the tab for food assistance and more families would be turning to local food pantries for help.

“We and the 430 agencies we serve are unable to handle the anticipated (food) poundage this bill would create,” said Eileen Groll Liponis, the Food Bank’s executive director, who estimated the bill would double the amount of food her organization would work to provide for needy families. They currently distribute 1.2 million pounds of food per month.

“That would take power to buy food away for so many,” Liponis said.

(Ella Nilsen can be reached at 369-3322, enilsen@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @ella_nilsen.)