2M people off food stamp benefits in last year

2M people off food stamp benefits in last year
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The number of Americans who receive food stamps has dropped by more than 2 million over the last year, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as states begin to reintroduce work rules relaxed during the recession.

Nationally, 43.5 million Americans received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits in May, the Agriculture Department (USDA) said this month. That’s down from 45.5 million who received those same benefits in May 2015, and down from a peak of 47.8 million beneficiaries in December 2012.

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The decline reflects a recovering economy after the worst recession in generations. But in many states, lower SNAP enrollment numbers reflect the reimplementation of rules that require adults who receive benefits to work.

The 1996 welfare overhaul signed into law by then-President Clinton limited childless, able-bodied adults to three months of SNAP benefits every three years, if they weren’t working, volunteering or earning an education. The 2009 federal stimulus bill allowed states to waive the work requirement in areas with high unemployment.

But now those waivers are ending in many states, either because the federal government has not extended the waivers or because state governors are opting out of them.

In recent years, 15 states have opted out of those waivers, limiting out-of-work adults to three months of food stamp benefits before they must find a job. In 2016, 22 more states will implement work requirements for the first time since the recession.

Several states that voluntarily ended their participation in the waiver program have seen a precipitous drop in enrollees in the last year: Between May 2015 and May 2016, food stamp enrollments dropped more than 10 percentage points in Florida, Arkansas, Indiana and Mississippi.

The federal government has ended waivers to other states as their economies get better. Kentucky dropped 118,000 people, or 15.6 percent of their total enrollees, from SNAP benefits after federal officials ended the state’s waiver in January. Tennessee also lost its waiver in January — its SNAP enrollment decreased 10 percent year over year.

All told, 38 states and the District of Columbia have seen food stamp enrollment decline in the last year, the USDA data shows.

Average monthly benefits have also declined. The SNAP program is paying out an average of $125.67 per person, and $254.73 per household, in monthly benefits this year, the Agriculture Department said. That’s well below the $133.07 per person and $274.98 per household average in fiscal 2013, when participation in the program reached its peak.

The 12 states where food stamp use has increased in the last year include several states hit hard by falling oil and gas prices. Food stamp use has grown most in Louisiana, Wyoming and New Mexico, all of which have seen their rolls expand by more than 4 percentage points.

North Dakota, Texas, Oklahoma and Alaska, all states where energy companies have shuttered as prices drop, have also seen SNAP participation rise. Texas’s SNAP rolls have grown by 88,000, more than any other state in the nation.

Nationally, the drop in enrollment was particularly steep in April, when participants who faced the three-month time limit began losing their benefits. The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank that supports SNAP and other nutrition assistance programs, said 773,000 people dropped out of the SNAP program in a single month — the largest monthly decline since 2005, when hundreds of thousands of recipients of temporary food aid after Hurricane Katrina began losing benefits.

The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) says the continued economic recovery is likely to further reduce the number of Americans eligible for SNAP benefits in the coming years. By 2026, the CBO estimates just 33 million Americans will be eligible for the program, down from 44.5 million in fiscal 2016.