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Federal Changes To Food Stamp Program Will Hit Utah's Poorest County The Hardest

Photo inside Harmons Grocery Store in downtown Salt Lake City
Brian Albers
Muris Prses, with Department of Workforce Services, said that food stamps are an important service not just to the people who rely on them, but also to grocery stores and the economy of Utah overall.

Nearly 700,000 people nationwide could lose food stamps under new federal rules that tighten work requirements, including a small but vulnerable group of San Juan County residents.

The Trump administration on Wednesday announced the change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which administers the food stamp program.

In Utah, over 170,000 people rely on food stamps. Under the new regulations, which go into effect next year, around 400 could potentially lose their benefits — all of whom live in San Juan County. 

The county is Utah’s poorest, where per capita income was $17,385 in 2017 and more than a fourth of residents live in poverty

But U.S. Department of Agriculture officials said that since the U.S. economy is booming, more people are working or should be able to find a job, and therefore don’t need the benefits. 

“Now is the time for these individuals to enter, reenter, and remain in the workforce,” the USDA said in its initial announcement.

Muris Prses, an assistant director at the state Department of Workforce Services, said that most of San Juan County’s food stamp recipients are eligible for other exemptions and should be able to continue using the program. But 82 of them are almost guaranteed to lose their benefits. 

While that number may seem small, he said food stamps can be a critical source of assistance for those who rely on them – even if they are typically not enough to cover all food needs. 

“Being on the other side of that counter I can tell you SNAP benefits mean a difference for some individuals [of] whether or not they’re able to put food on the table,” he said. 

Under the current federal rule, able-bodied adults without dependents can only receive SNAP benefits for three months during a three-year period, unless they’re working or enrolled in an education or training program for 20 hours a week.

But states can ask to waive that time limit given certain economic conditions. Those include limited job prospects and an unemployment rate as low as 2.5%. The Trump administration’s change, however, raises the unemployment level to 10%. 

San Juan County was the only county in the state to receive a waiver, Prses said. Its unemployment rate was around 6% when the exemption was granted. It now stands at 4.7% — the third highest in the state — which means the area will likely lose its exemption when the change takes effect on April 1. 

Raising the unemployment rate for the time-limit waiver is the first of three changes the administration is working on that would limit access to SNAP benefits. Prses said it’s not clear how the others proposed changes will affect Utah, including San Juan County.

Jon reports on quality of life issues, education and the economy
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