FILE - PA Teresa Miller 12-10-2019

Pennsylvania Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller speaks Dec. 10, 2019, at a news conference on changes to federal rules for SNAP benefits.

The Trump administration in recent months has stepped up its efforts to require an increasing number of welfare beneficiaries to seek and find work in order to continue to take part in programs.

In light of the latest moves by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to tie work requirements to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, the administration of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf is saying the administration's moves could lead to a crisis.

At a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Pennsylvania Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller made the case that new USDA rules for SNAP benefits – once known as food stamps – could lead to hundreds of thousands of people in the state being removed from the rolls.

“I think I speak for the entire Wolf administration when I say that we want to help people achieve a better life without public assistance,” Miller said. “But attacks on SNAP make it harder for us to make people's lives better. The Trump administration has proposed or enacted three rules in 2019 that make it harder for us to help people in need.”

The three rules that Miller was referring to relate to local jobless rates, heating and cooling standards, and “broad-based” eligibility rules. According to Miller, the changes each could impact ranges from 95,000 to 775,000 people.

“How does taking away someone's food budget help them get a job?” Miller asked. “How does removing assistance help anyone toward self sufficiency? It doesn't. It only creates more challenges and barriers for people who already experienced significant barriers.”

According to a news release from the USDA, the latest proposed rule change will apply to “able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents and does not apply to children and their parents, those over 50 years old including the elderly, those with a disability, or pregnant women.”

Miller sought to rebut claims by U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who argued in an opinion piece this month that the Trump administration’s moves were designed to help deal with a nationwide worker shortage and to prevent people from being stuck in cycles of poverty and dependency.

“Our SNAP program should be structured to work with our changing economy, not be stuck in the past,” Perdue wrote. “This is why I made it a top priority to ensure people have the tools they need to move away from SNAP dependency and back toward self-sufficiency. At the USDA we are working to restore the original intent of SNAP – one that provides a safety net for those in need but encourages accountability and self-sufficiency.”

Miller argued Tuesday that Pennsylvania’s workforce training programs were insufficient to handle the challenge of transitioning so many people from SNAP benefits into the workforce.

“At the state level, DHS is committed to administering robust employment and training programs that help people obtain education and skills necessary to obtain and succeed in a job that pays a living wage,” Miller said. “Our SNAP 50/50 sites are a perfect example of this. However, these programs can only work with so many people at once, and none of these rules come with an investment to broaden their reach.”

Miller seemed to imply that the federal changes were more about budget cutting than anything else, saying that if all three changes were fully implemented, it could save $20 billion nationally.

“That's a lot of money and a lot of people really negatively impacted,” she said.

Perdue, in his opinion piece, argued that SNAP benefits were always intended to be a temporary measure for those able to work.

“Any one of us can face tough times, and as a community we come together to help others,” he wrote. “At the same time, we expect those we assist to in turn take responsibility for themselves. Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream.”

Regional Editor

Dave Lemery is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. He was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship newspaper was named best weekly in Illinois, and he has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.