Food stamp changes in 2016 affect 100,000 Pennsylvanians

A woman pays for her groceries using a food stamp program at a supermarket  (Seth Wenig/AP Photo)

A woman pays for her groceries using a food stamp program at a supermarket (Seth Wenig/AP Photo)

Changes are coming to the food stamp program in 2016.

Starting this year, unemployed adults without children who receive SNAP or food stamp benefits will be subject to a 3-month time limit. Pennsylvania says this will affect 43 counties and up to 100,000 people.

However people in 24 counties such as Philadelphia and Delaware, as well as cities including Bethlehem and Harrisburg, are exempt from the time limit because of high local unemployment rates.

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This SNAP time limit has been around for 20 years, instituted during the 1996 Federal Welfare Reform Act. For the last nine years, Pennsylvania filed for a statewide exemption, claiming a high overall unemployment rate. This year, the federal government will apply the three-month time limit by county.

The state estimates that many unemployed Pennsylvanians without children will be able to obtain unrestricted SNAP benefits through individual exemptions.

These exemptions include mental and physical disabilities, homelessness, claiming unemployment, or volunteering at least 26 hours a month at a nonprofit.

Louise Hayes, an attorney at Community Legal services, says the process of reorganizing clients into exemption categories will burden local assistance offices.

“We are worried about the amount of work this rule will impose on the county assistance offices because they need to be screening individuals for exemptions,” she said.

The state estimates 52,000 people will lose SNAP benefits. If a recipient does not live in an exempted county, meet the 20-hour a week work minimum, or have an individual exemption, he or she cannot reapply within three years of receiving their three-month benefit. Hayes expects food banks to be busier as a result of the restrictions.

The rule goes into effect today. But, to give residents more time to apply for exemptions, the state will use discretionary funding — a SNAP rainy day fund — to push the time limit’s start date until March 1.

Community Legal Services is partnering with Pittsburgh nonprofit Just Harvest to coordinate volunteers that inform SNAP recipients of exemption options.

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to reflect more recent numbers provided by DHS.

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