Study: North Dakota, Minnesota could see largest drops in food stamp beneficiaries

John Hageman
Forum News Service

BISMARCK, N.D. — North Dakota and Minnesota would see some of the largest percentage decreases in households receiving food stamp benefits under a proposed federal rule tightening eligibility requirements, according to a study released on Sept. 5.

The study performed by Mathematica, a policy research firm, said 9% of households receiving benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program across the country would lose eligibility under the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposal. That number would be higher in North Dakota and Minnesota, where the drop would be 17% and 15%, respectively, amounting to roughly 38,000 households between the two states.

The USDA said in July it was seeking to limit “categorical eligibility,” which allows people to be eligible for SNAP when they qualify for other government benefits. Many states have expanded that policy in ways that make “most, if not all” of their low-income households eligible for SNAP, including North Dakota and Minnesota, according to the Congressional Research Service.

The USDA said its rule would close what it called a “loophole” that has allowed people to receive SNAP benefits “when they clearly don’t need it,” highlighting the case of Minnesota millionaire who said he enrolled in the program to prove a point. The agency said the change would save $2.5 billion a year by “ensuring nutrition assistance programs are delivered with consistency and integrity to those most in need.”

“For too long, this loophole has been used to effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines. Too often, states have misused this flexibility without restraint,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement when the rule was first proposed.

But Melissa Sobolik, president of the Great Plains Food Bank, which supplies food pantries throughout North Dakota and Minnesota’s Clay County, doubted people here are receiving nutrition assistance when they don’t need it. She said her organization may struggle to keep up with demand if fewer people are receiving SNAP benefits.

“We are pretty strapped and at capacity right now,” Sobolik said.

A spokeswoman for the North Dakota Department of Human Services didn’t immediately have data showing the impact of the USDA’s proposal and said it would be “premature to speculate” about how SNAP beneficiaries could be affected.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services said “categorically eligible” households still must meet the program’s income guidelines and document their financial circumstances. That state has used the flexibility to raise income limits for SNAP and target households that “often struggle to afford basic food needs in addition to housing, medical and/or child care costs,” the agency said in a memo.

The report released Thursday said the change would have little effect in South Dakota, which doesn’t have so-called “broad-based categorical eligibility” for SNAP. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which urged the USDA to withdraw the rule.

Minnesota Democratic Sen. Tina Smith said policymakers should do more to weed out the small group of “bad actors who abuse the system,” but she warned the USDA’s proposal “means that thousands of Minnesota kids are at risk of going hungry.”

Republican lawmakers from North Dakota, meanwhile, signaled support for the USDA’s efforts.

Sen. Kevin Cramer said he supports closing loopholes while ensuring SNAP is available to “those who need it most,” which he hopes the final rule reflects. Sen. John Hoeven said the USDA “needs to make sure that the proposal will both prevent program abuse and continue to provide assistance to those in need.”

“Food stamps going to ineligible people takes resources away from those who need it most and undermines public perception of the program, furthering negative stereotypes about receiving benefits,” Rep. Kelly Armstrong said in a statement.

A USDA spokesperson declined to comment on Sept. 5 during the public comment period, which ends Sept. 23.

Sen. John Hoeven, left, R-N.D., and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue talk with Forum News Service representatives.