MEXICO — County social services officials are preparing for a potential influx of individuals in need of nutrition assistance as the federal government moves to tighten restrictions on who can receive benefits through the food stamp program.

The Trump Administration plan would limit states from exempting work-eligible adults from work requirements, and is one of three proposed rules targeting the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The Associated Press (AP) reports more than 36 million people receive SNAP benefits, and the tightened work requirements could cut benefits for more than 680,000 individuals.

Oswego County Department of Social Service (DSS) Commissioner Stacy Alvord said around 16,500 people in Oswego County receive assistance from SNAP and of those, about 1,000 are currently at risk of losing their benefits.

“We’re in the early phase of creating strategies,” Alvord said of the counties efforts to limit the impact of the loss of benefits.

Federal law requires work-eligible, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 with no dependents to work either 20 hours per week or 80 hours per month to receive SNAP. Individuals who don’t meet the work requirements are only eligible for three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period, but areas with high unemployment were able to waive that requirement.

Oswego County has had such a waiver since 2015, according to Alvord, but will lose it on March 31st when the new restrictions limit the waiver to areas in which the unemployment rate exceeds 7 percent.

The most recent data on Oswego County’s unemployment rate is from November, when it sat at 4.8 percent, according to the state Department of Labor. That’s down from 6.5 percent a year ago and down from 12.7 percent in 2012.

Alvord said she has not yet heard concern from residents about the changes, and doesn’t expect to until people state losing their benefits in March. She and her staff are looking to send out an informational letter to the public and help people to find employment or approved work activities to meet the required 20 hours per week.

Those who are disabled or otherwise not able to work will not be affected by the changes, Alvord said.

Alvord said DSSS would conduct interviews with impacted individuals to assess their employability, and then work to find them appropriate assistance.

U.S. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, urged the USDA to consider revisions to the proposed rules in order to ensure central New York and other vulnerable communities across the country are not adversely impacted. Katko said the new rules have the potential to impact thousands of central New Yorkers.

“I believe we must continue to provide support for those in central New York who face economic hardship,” Katko said. “We cannot address our region’s poverty challenges without supporting those working to make better lives for themselves and their families.”

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Katko asked the USDA to engage with nutrition and food security agencies before allowing the proposed changes to take effect.

“Promoting self-reliance and combating hunger are not mutually exclusive goals, and further cooperation would ensure that food security is not jeopardized for Americans facing financial hardships,” Katko wrote.

JoAnn Locy, who runs the local Human Concern Center, a food bank in the city of Oswego, said she is concerned about the changes but the center will assist when possible.

“I am very sad to see it happen,” Locy said. “I know a lot of people are on the SNAP program. We are ready and willing to help.”

Locy said since 2012 the Human Concern Center has seen fewer people come in seeking food. She hopes the decline is due to people finding jobs and making ends meet.

With the upcoming changes to SNAP, however, Locy is anticipating an influx of people in need of food.

New York Attorney general Letitia James and District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine on Thursday filed a lawsuit, which was joined by several other states and New York City, challenging the new restrictions. The lawsuit says the restrictions were cruel and target vulnerable populations.

“The federal government’s latest assault on vulnerable individuals is cruel to its core,” James said Thursday. “Denying access to vital SNAP benefits would only push hundreds of thousands of already vulnerable Americans into greater economic uncertainty.”

James argues the USDA violated the federal rulemaking process, and the rules would impose significant regulatory burdens and harm state economies and residents.

The Human Concern Center accepts donations of food or money at their location at 85 East 4th Street.

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