An estimated 700,000 people nationally will lose food stamp benefits because of changes ordered this week by the Trump administration — but that may include just a tiny group of 82 Utahns.
That’s because the changes apply mostly to areas that had relatively high unemployment or job scarcity recently, and Utah’s economy has boomed for years. The only Utahns likely facing loss of food stamps from the changes are in San Juan County, the state’s poorest.
While Utah’s number may be small, changes still may be devastating to those involved.
“There is, of course, the question of will these customers be able to afford to put food on the table. And what will the quality of the food be?” said Muris Prses, assistant director for the Eligibility Services Division of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.
He says some of those people may be forced to skip a meal or more daily.
The new changes for food stamps, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), affect adults ages 18 to 49 who are able to work and have no dependents.
Rules have long allowed them to receive food stamps only for three months during a three-year period, unless they are working or are enrolled in an education or training program for 20 weeks.
But states could seek to waive those time limits for counties with high unemployment or a lack of sufficient jobs. San Juan County is currently the only one in Utah with such a waiver. The poverty rate there is 28.4%, and the median personal income is $17,385.
The new rule, which takes effect on April 1, allows waivers only for counties with 10% unemployment — or at 6% unemployment combined with other job scarcity factors. The unemployment rate in San Juan County is 4.7%.
Also changes require not seeking waivers for individual counties, but other areas such as overall job markets, Prses said.
He figures changes put benefits in jeopardy for about 400 recipients in San Juan County. But he said most are eligible for other exemptions to allow continuing aid.
“Only 82 do not currently appear to meet another exemption,” he said. “If we were to make this change today, 82 customers would most likely lose eligibility for SNAP.”
Gina Cornia, executive director of Utahns Against Hunger, said in a news release that even if the effects are small for now in Utah, they could hurt the state when future recessions hit.
“While the economy is strong at the moment, a future recession will lead to an increase in SNAP participation. Changes to the current rule will prevent states from waiving areas with rapidly rising unemployment,” she said.
As of October, 170,190 Utahns were receiving SNAP assistance, according to the Utah Department of Workforce Services. That included 2,951 in San Juan County. Along the Wasatch Front, it included 66,573 in Salt Lake County, 23,229 in Utah County, 18,425 in Weber County and 13,178 in Davis.
U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said Trump directed them to make the new rule change to move more able-bodied SNAP recipients into employment and self-sufficiency, and to prevent the assistance from becoming a way of life.
“Now in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work. This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans reenter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”
Cornia, with Utahns Against Hunger, said that reasoning for the change is faulty.
“Restricting access to SNAP, a nutrition assistance program, does not make people more employable,” she said. “Arguably, it will make them less able to find work because of the consequences of hunger.”
She adds the new rule “does nothing to assist this population in getting and keeping a job. Further, it will not create jobs in rural communities where economic development is scarce.”