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175,000 Washington residents risk losing food assistance under federal proposal

Washington would be one of the states hit hardest by the Trump administration's proposal to limit access to food assistance. The changes would affect the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP.

Back in 2000, the federal government allowed states to expand eligibility for food assistance. Washington was one of the states to do that, allowing people with gross income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level to qualify, instead of the federal guideline of 130 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of three, 200 percent of the federal poverty level is about $42,660.

But now the Trump administration wants to rein it in, saying the move would close a loophole and could save the federal government billions of dollars. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the change would ensure the benefits would go to those who need them most.

Washington state officials say about 175,000 people are at risk of losing benefits. That includes about 66,000 kids. Babs Roberts is director of the community services division within the state Department of Social and Health Services. She said some kids also could lose access to free meals at school.

“For those school-aged children, they would no longer be directly certified for free and reduced lunch programs,” Roberts said. “They might still qualify, but they would have to go through a separate and different application process rather than having direct certification done at the school district.”

An analysis by the public policy research firm Mathematica for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that 16 percent of SNAP recipients in Washington stand to lose their benefits if the proposal goes through.

“Washington is impacted pretty significantly,” said Sarah Lauffer, senior research programmer at Mathematica. Other states that would be hard hit include North Dakota, Oregon and Nevada.

Social service agencies in Washington are criticizing the plan. Christina Wong is director of public policy and advocacy for Northwest Harvest, a nonprofit that distributes food to food banks. She said the expanded eligibility in Washington helps families that are struggling to make ends meet in a region with a high cost of living.

“It’s primarily going to be hurting working families with children who are earning low wages, and also low-income seniors and people with disabilities who live on fixed incomes provided by Social Security,” Wong said.

The federal government is accepting comments on the proposal until Sept. 23.

In July 2017, Ashley Gross became KNKX's youth and education reporter after years of covering the business and labor beat. She joined the station in May 2012 and previously worked five years at WBEZ in Chicago, where she reported on business and the economy. Her work telling the human side of the mortgage crisis garnered awards from the Illinois Associated Press and the Chicago Headline Club. She's also reported for the Alaska Public Radio Network in Anchorage and for Bloomberg News in San Francisco.