50 Routt County families could lose food assistance under proposed federal rule | SteamboatToday.com

50 Routt County families could lose food assistance under proposed federal rule

New rule would decrease number of eligible people for SNAP program

Beth Taylor helps a woman at the LiftUp food bank in Steamboat. About 50 Routt County families could lose their food stamps under a proposed federal rule.
File photo

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A potential federal regulation could end food assistance for about 50 families in Routt County. 

In late July, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as food stamps — proposed a rule to decrease the number of people eligible for the program. 

Statewide, more than 30,000 residents could lose their food stamps under the regulation, the majority of which are families with children, according to state officials. 

Kelly Keith, director of the Routt County Department of Human Services, said about 10% of the people in the area currently eligible for food stamps would lose their benefits. She knows it is not uncommon for people in Routt County to work multiple jobs to support their families.

Benefits like food stamps can help to alleviate some of the stress. She worried that in a resort town like Steamboat Springs, losing out on federal aid will only exacerbate their challenges and make it harder to reach financial stability.

“We know how hard it is already to make ends meet,” she said, adding that even people who receive food benefits still struggle to pay bills and provide healthy meals to their kids. 

Under current regulations, Colorado residents who earn less than 200% of the poverty line, or a cap of $50,200 for a family of four, can receive food assistance, according to the USDA’s income eligibility requirements. If the new rule passes, only those who earn 130% of the poverty line, or a cap of $31,980 for a family of four, would qualify.  

In a statement, USDA officials argued the rule would close a “loophole,” which they said has allowed people to receive food stamps “when they clearly don’t need it.”

They are referring to a two decades-old policy, known as the “broad-based categorical eligibility,” which allows 40 states, including Colorado, to increase income and asset eligibility limits for food stamps.

“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. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in the statement.

Officials added the proposal would save the department “billions of dollars,” which could be used to fund its 15 nutrition-assistance programs and help those “most in need.”

But supporters of broad-based categorical eligibility say it allows people to continue to benefit from nutrition assistance as they gradually transition their way out of poverty.

Despite Keith’s concerns about how the proposed rule may challenge families, her department is beholden to federal regulations, meaning there is little local officials can do to save residents from losing their benefits. She has been speaking with area nonprofits about ways they can help fill the gaps in service the proposed rule could create. 

LiftUp of Routt County, which operates a food bank in town, expanded its eligibility criteria in mid-July to help more families with their groceries. It increased the gross monthly income guideline for one person from $2,602 to $3,123. The monthly income cap for a family of four is now set at $6,438.  

Before the proposal goes into effect, USDA officials want to hear feedback. Through Sept. 23, the department is accepting public comment about the change. People can contact the Colorado food benefits office at 800-536-5298.

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.

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