Yale Daily News

44,000 Connecticut residents may now be eligible for food assistance benefits under a state change to SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which went into effect on Saturday. 

SNAP is a federal program that provides low-income families with monthly additional money for food in the form of an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card. Recipients can use the money on their EBT cards at most food retailers, including some farmers markets. 

This update, which Governor Ned Lamont announced on Sept. 28, increases the maximum monthly gross income for Connecticut SNAP recipients from 185 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. Monthly SNAP benefits will also increase by an average of 12.46 percent due to the annual federal cost-of-living adjustment, which accounts for yearly growth in the price of food. Some advocates from emergency food service providers applauded these changes but worried that they will not fully address the needs of New Haven residents, especially since food insecurity nearly doubled in Connecticut in 2022.

“This was a way … to maximize the help that individuals are receiving or can be eligible to receive,” said Dan Giacomi, SNAP program administration manager at the Connecticut Department of Social Services. “SNAP is something that touches all the communities here in the state … I think we as a community should be looking at any policy or program that we can do or utilize or implement to be able to help these individuals to feed themselves and feed their families.”

Increased income limits

In order to be eligible for SNAP, most applicants must meet two requirements. First, their income must not exceed the gross income limit. Second, their gross income minus expenses — which includes childcare, housing and some medical costs — must not exceed the federal net income limit, which is 100 percent of the federal poverty line. 

The updated policy raises Connecticut’s gross income limit from 185 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty line — or from $4,086 to $4,625 monthly for a family of four — the maximum allowable under federal law. Giacomi explained that this change “smoothes out” benefits, so that people whose income increases will not lose their SNAP benefits, so long as their expenses still keep them under the poverty line.

“Enacting this flexibility up to 200 percent allows us to have those individuals that perhaps are working or have some small amount of income that previously would have denied them for assistance,” Giacomi said. “So when you’re looking at a state such as ours that perhaps has higher than average shelter expenses, for example, now we’re going to determine whether or not the individual is going to receive assistance rather than being outright denied based on their gross income.” 

In addition to making 17,600 additional households potentially eligible for SNAP, according to calculations from the Department of Social Services, this change simplifies program administration.  

Giacomi noted that the SNAP income cap used to be aligned with the “HUSKY A” income limit, which determines whether families with children are eligible for Medicaid, until the Medicaid limit was raised to 201 percent of the federal poverty limit with the expansion of the Affordable Care Act. Realigning those numbers makes it easier for Connecticut residents and DSS eligibility workers — of whom there are about 800 statewide — to identify what assistance they are eligible for.

“If you have an individual that is applying, by and large, they are applying for all of the assistance that they perhaps are eligible for,” Giacomi said. “When you have your guidelines or your income limits aligned, it allows you to more easily explain to individuals why they qualify or do not qualify for programs. And it also helps eligibility workers to be able to quickly refer to what the income limit is across programs.” 

SNAP recipients are automatically eligible for some other state and federal benefits, like the National School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs and the Connecticut Energy Assistance Program. 

Better benefits, but unmet needs

SNAP recipients in Connecticut will also see an average increase of 12.46 percent to their monthly benefits. Giacomi said that this increase occurred because of the federal government’s annual cost-of-living adjustment. 

The US Department of Agriculture bases SNAP benefits off of its “Thrifty Food Plan,” which their website defines as the cost of groceries needed for a “healthy, budget-conscious diet for a family of four.” The cost-of-living adjustment is meant to account for the growth in the price of food over the last year.

Giacomi said that SNAP allotments to recipients are the same across the 48 contiguous states, and the state does not have control over them. Benefit levels are higher in Alaska and Hawaii because of the cost of food in those areas.  

Dr. Phillip A. Boone, pastor of the Cathedral of Higher Praise, which runs a food pantry in Fair Haven, said he was supportive of the increased benefits.

“Inflation has gone up, so whatever extra money you made, you lost,” Boone said. He added that wage growth has not matched the prices of consumer goods in recent years.  

However, Steve Werlin, Executive Director of Downtown Evening Soup Kitchen (DESK), worried that even with the expansion of SNAP, people on the program still often rely on emergency food services. He noted that most people who come to DESK are also already enrolled in SNAP. 

“The amounts are still far below what is going to be needed,” Werlin said. “If those SNAP benefits were enough, why would they also be coming to us?”

32,950 New Haven residents, or 24.58 percent of the city’s population, were SNAP recipients as of January 2022 — the fourth highest percentage among all Connecticut towns. 

Werlin said he considers SNAP and the emergency food service as complementary at this point. The reality is that, according to Werlin, even with SNAP, people are relying on what used to be emergency food services on a weekly or monthly basis.

Werlin said that although emergency food services will likely always be necessary, he would like to see a day where SNAP is sufficient for families to meet their nutrition needs. 

“The road to ending poverty is through forms of financial assistance like SNAP,” Werlin said. “It is not through community based organizations like DESK. DESK provides a number of important services. We do this because we have to, because our federal programs are otherwise failing.”

Similar to Werlin, Boone felt that his food pantry service has become a chronic service rather than a crisis service.

“We would like to think that we live in a place where everyone has all the means and the ways to get healthy food to live and survive, but it’s not that way,” Boone said.

A preliminary dataset released by the nonprofit DataHaven shows that the percentage of Connecticut adults who say they did not have enough money to buy food has nearly doubled during the past year. 

Mark Abraham, the Executive Director of DataHaven, suggested that the increase of food insecurity is partially due to the expiration of the Child Tax Credit (CTC), which provided large advance payments to nearly all U.S. families with dependent children each month beginning in July 2021 and ending in December 2021.

“That was a large amount of funding for families that allowed them to purchase extra childcare or healthy food,” Abraham said. “That’s something that many people have been advocating to continue in the future.” 

Abraham suggested that to alleviate the problem of food insecurity, the state can consider improving its tax policy and tax credits, and building more affordable housing and better transportation systems to help households reserve more of their budget for food.

Accessing assistance

According to Giacomi, there are three ways of applying to SNAP. Applicants can apply online, mail in a paper application or complete an application in person at one of the 12 field offices statewide. Many local nonprofits can assist residents with the application process.

Usually, Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) can only receive SNAP benefits for 3 months out of a 36 month period if they do not meet ABAWD work requirements. Connecticut has waived the ABAWD time limit since 2009 due to the unemployment rate and has waived all SNAP work requirements due to the pandemic. 

Once a resident sends in their application, one of the 800 state workers will start the review process, conduct telephone interviews, enter their information into an online system, make determinations and mail them an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card.

Once the applicants receive SNAP benefits, they will roll over month to month as long as they continue purchasing with the EBT card. Benefits are expunged from the card if no purchase is made in at least 9 months. Most households are on a 12-month certification period and will receive a form at the end of the cycle to confirm their eligibility.

Giacomi said that there are around 2000 stores in Connecticut that can redeem SNAP benefits, including farmers markets, corner stores and large retailers. Since the pandemic, SNAP benefits can also be used online at many stores.

The overall food insecurity rate in Connecticut in 2022 is 17 percent.

Sadie Bograd covers Nonprofits and Social Services. Last year, she covered City Hall. Originally from Kentucky, she is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in Urban Studies.