Greg Ivers, above, of the Department of Human Services traveled from Salem in early March to give a presentation on upcoming changes to SNAP eligibility in Malheur County. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
ONTARIO – Starting April 1 guidelines for adults without disabilities or dependents who are receiving public benefits in Malheur County will tighten.
Under the new guidelines imposed by the federal government, adults ages 18-49 without children and who do not qualify for an exemption will only be allowed to receive food assistance for three months over a period of three years.
They can retain benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, if they participate in volunteer activities or work at least 80 hours a month.
The new guidelines will affect an estimated 1,037 adults in Malheur County.
“It’s going to be a change,” said Levi Anderson, employment and training navigator for the state Department of Human Services in Ontario.
All Oregon counties will be subject to the new SNAP time limits except for Crook, Curry, Grant, Harney, Klamath and Wallowa. Tribal members who live on a list of selected tribal reservations are also exempt. Waived areas were selected if they had an unemployment rate 20% above the national average – or a rate no less than 6%. Malheur County’s unemployment rate sits at 3.3%.
[ KEEP YOUR LOCAL NEWS STRONG – SUBSCRIBE ]
Oregon will put in place discretionary exemptions until October, which means local clients will have time to adjust to the changes.
Clients affected by the decision began receiving lavender-colored envelopes in the mail from the state in early March.
The agency is urging clients to call or come into the office to update their cases, since many people likely qualify for exemptions or otherwise meet requirements.
“A lot of folks don’t realize they’re already doing volunteer work,” Anderson said, adding that many clients may not realize that some of the activities they’re already doing and don’t take credit for can count.
Getting clients in to talk about their situations will be crucial in the coming months, he added.
Clients can be exempt from the changes for reasons including pregnancy, physical barriers, attending school at least half-time or caring for an incapacitated person.
A packed house sat in on a town hall at the Department of Human Services office in Ontario in early March to learn more about upcoming changes to SNAP eligibility. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)
Of the 1,037 able-bodied adults without children in Malheur as of last August, 213 are considered medically exempt and an additional 144 qualify for other exemptions.
Adults who are not exempt and do not meet the work requirements will receive what is called a “countable month.” After three countable months the customer’s SNAP benefits will end.
Customers who lose SNAP can regain benefits during the three-year period if they have an exemption or begin to complete 80 hours or more of work or volunteer activities in the prior month.
Nationwide projections on the number of people who will lose assistance vary. The federal government estimates that a little over half a million people would lose SNAP benefits, while some researchers expect the number to exceed 1 million.
The new restrictions have been controversial nationwide, with critics arguing that people who work seasonal jobs will be unfairly impacted.
Others worry that taking food assistance away from people will add pressure on local food pantries and organizations.
“We’re already challenged to respond to the numbers we have,” said Tammy Vogt, pastor at Origins Faith Community, which houses the area’s only homeless shelter, at a town hall earlier this month.
Connie Ussing, manager of the Vale Food Pantry, said she’s unsure what the changes will mean for her operation.
“Frequently what will happen is that people who would come three or four times a year will start coming every month,” Ussing said, adding that the pantry has been overwhelmed over the past year and has experienced empty shelves and a spike in clients.
Greg Ivers with the Department of Human Services said at a recent town hall, “These government programs help people from sliding further into poverty, but they also help local businesses.”
SNAP benefits inject $769,537 a month into the local economy, according to Dan Ramirez, self sufficiency programs manager at Ontario’s Department of Human Services.
For now the goal is to connect with clients and help them through the process of completing work requirements.
“If you can just get in and talk to us, we’re going to be supportive,” Anderson said.
Have a news tip? Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.
For the latest news, follow the Enterprise on Facebook and Twitter.
SUBSCRIBE TO HELP PRODUCE VITAL REPORTING — For $5 a month, you get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news produced by a professional and highly trained staff. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.