State joins lawsuit to preserve SNAP, a key part of region's emergency food system

New London resident Maryjo Boone is grateful for the $152 a month she receives in food stamps through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

She fled a volatile relationship three years ago and, at 39, is reassembling her life, having recently moved out of Safe Futures' transitional housing for victims of domestic violence. A customer service representative at Burlington Coat Factory, she said she loves her job but is only able to work part time due to several health conditions. Boone said food stamps cover only a fraction of her grocery bill, but it's a big help, especially since she is on a restricted — and expensive — diet.

Like others in Connecticut and around the country, Boone is waiting anxiously to see whether she will be able to continue receiving the federal benefit under new rules being implemented by the Trump administration.

This past week, state Attorney General William Tong announced he was joining 15 other attorneys general and New York City in a lawsuit to stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture from eliminating food stamps for an estimated 26,000 people in Connecticut and 700,000 people throughout the nation. Participating states are California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia, along with the District of Columbia and City of New York.

The rule change is tied in with the low unemployment rate — currently between 3.5% and 3.7% statewide and nationally — and limits the ability of state agencies that administer the food stamp program — the Department of Social Services in Connecticut — to grant SNAP extensions for people beyond three months out of every three years for 18- to 49-year-olds designated as able-bodied adults without dependents.

In Connecticut, 363,500 residents, or about one in every 10 people, receive SNAP benefits, according to Tong. The average benefit is $134.20 a month.

The new rule, which would be implemented in April, would impact 25,788 people in 16 communities, including Norwich and New London, Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, New Britain, Meriden, East Hartford, Manchester, Bristol, West Haven, Windham/Willimantic, Middletown, Windsor and Hamden.

According to Connecticut officials, the rule ignores local economic conditions and bases eligibility solely on the economic conditions in large "labor market area" groupings. SNAP recipients in Bridgeport, one of the state's poorest communities, would be ineligible for food stamps because of low unemployment in the wealthier neighboring cities of Greenwich and Darien.

Tong said Congress previously rejected the "labor market area" system. He and the other attorneys general are urging the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., to declare the new rule unlawful and prevent it from taking effect.

"This proposal cruelly and unlawfully punishes the poor, and does absolutely nothing to improve job access," Tong said in a news release. "Tens of thousands of people in Connecticut alone will go hungry, with millions of dollars in cascading harm to the statewide economy. That is why Congress previously considered and roundly rejected this strategy. Our lawsuit seeks to block this plan due to the Administration's failures to follow basic, necessary administrative procedures in rushing through this fatally flawed proposal."

After paying for rent, transportation, medical co-pays, electricity, phone and Internet, Boone said she doesn't have much left over for food and often has to borrow to make it through the month. Boone said she recently started taking online classes to continue working toward a longtime goal of becoming a veterinarian technician.

"I think people are worth the investment," Boone said of government assistance programs designed to help people who are struggling become independent. "You invest in people and they show productivity, and when you take something out of the equation, it makes it harder."

Boone may be exempted from the new limitation because she is considered disabled, but area social service providers say cutting off that many people from food stamps would strain the emergency food system.

"If people have nowhere else to get food, they are going to have to rely on the system," said Dina Sears-Graves, vice president of community impact for the United Way of Southeastern Connecticut and manager of the Gemma Moran food bank. "It will have a huge impact on all these pantries and community meal sites."

Sears-Graves said many SNAP recipients already are part of the system, since food stamps aren't always enough to pay for their groceries. She said providing food to those who are struggling is a form of income support that helps people pay for housing, child care and other expenses. 

"I feel like our community is extremely generous and always has been," Sears-Graves said. "We look after our own, and in the event this happens, we could rally our community and they would step up like they have in the past."

Marge Fondulas, director of Human Services for the Town of Groton, said requests for food come from those experiencing a variety of circumstances.

"It can be someone who has just been laid off, or has had a catastrophic illness, or someone who has had a significant car repair," she said.

Of particular concern, given the new SNAP rule, is the single adults who are not physically or mentally able to work, or work enough hours to survive, but are stuck "in a sort of never never land" as they wait, sometimes years, to see whether they qualify for disability income, Fondulas said.

"It's very easy to say 'get a job,' but that is not easy for someone who is not on an even keel mentally or has a physical disability," she said.

The employment situation has been good at the Electric Boat shipyard, where the Navy last month signed a $22.2 billion contract to build at least nine Virginia-class attack submarines over the next five years. But the state Department of Labor reported in December that other sectors have lost jobs, including trade, transportation and utilities; leisure and hospitality; financial activities; and construction and mining.

Some of those who rely on food assistance in southeastern Connecticut are employed people who earn more than the federal poverty level of $25,750 for a household of four, but who live paycheck to paycheck and are unable to save for emergencies, according to Sears-Graves.

She said 10 percent of the area's residents fall below the federal poverty level and 30 percent are designated by the United Way as "ALICE," or Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed. The area food banks don't have income eligibility requirements.

"If somebody needs food, you want to give them food," Sears-Graves said.

k.florin@theday.com

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