Food Assistance benefits are about to drop sharply in Ohio, unless the federal government steps in to fix a huge problem.
The cut in benefits, which will go into effect on Jan 1, 2013, will vary for each household but could mean a loss of up to $50 in monthly food assistance for families. And in addition to hurting poor families, the cut will also have significant impact on grocery stores in the region and around the state.
Ohio’s Food Assistance (formerly known as Food Stamps) program is part of the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which is designed to provide families with about 75 percent of the food they need each month. The average monthly benefit for a household is $284.
Regulations used in determining eligibility for Food Assistance use what is called a Standard Utility Allowance as a deduction of income for all household utility costs. The cut in Food Assistance is being made due to an overall decrease in the cost of heating a home with natural gas in Ohio and an unusually warm winter last year. The Standard Utility Allowance formula does not factor in the fact that many Food Assistance recipients do not heat their homes with natural gas, or that other monthly expenses have gone up and cancelled out any savings that families may have seen in their heating bills.
In Athens County and much of southern Ohio, the majority of people heat their homes with sources other than natural gas, and the costs of most of those sources have gone up. So not only will many low-income southern Ohio residents be paying more to heat their homes this winter, they will also have less money available to spend on food.
In Athens County, for example, 42% of all homes are heated with natural gas, while 40% use electricity, 10% use bulk fuel, 1.5% use fuel oil or kerosene, and 6.6% use other heating sources. This means that 58% of the homes do not use natural gas.
And out of the 1,422 Athens County low-income households who applied for HEAP assistance to help them pay for heating costs during the 2011-2012 winter, only 199 (14%) used natural gas to heat their homes.
Earlier this year, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services asked federal officials to waive the change in the Standard Utility Allowance in Ohio so that families would not have their Food Assistance benefits cut. Federal officials denied Ohio’s request, although they have approved similar requests by other states.
If the federal government allows this cut to take place, it will mean a loss of $3 million in Food Assistance benefits in Athens County alone in the next year. Across Ohio, it will mean a loss of $520 million in Food Assistance benefits in the next year. Food Assistance is a proven economic stimulus, as all of the benefits are used in local businesses. Taking $520 million out of Ohio’s economy will further hurt the state’s efforts to recover from the nation’s recent economic problems.
Most importantly, though, this decrease in assistance will hurt poor families who cannot afford any more cuts.
“This cut in Food Assistance will unfortunately cut the budgets of families who are already struggling to get by and who are facing higher utility bills this winter,” Athens County Job and Family Services Director Jack Frech said. “We call upon the state of Ohio and the federal government to stop this unfair, punitive action against poor people.”