U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says the new policies “restore the original intent” of the food assistance program.

While millions of Americans will be kicked off food assistance under the Trump Administration’s new restrictions, Mississippians stand to see their benefits increase.

Mississippians won’t be forced off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new work requirement, set to take effect in April, because the state already imposed the restriction on recipients in 2016.

Instead, researchers estimate another lesser known provision will increase Mississippi’s food assistance allocation by $32 million or 4.9 percent, the most of any state.

When a person applies for benefits, their eligibility and the amount they receive each month is determined by several factors. If the person has utility bills, they receive a standard deduction, determined by the state, that reduces their countable income and increases their benefit amount. The new federal rule standardizes the calculation of this deduction, called a utility allowance. Under that formula, Mississippi’s monthly allowance will increase from $274 in 2017 to $338, according to Urban Institute senior fellow Laura Wheaton.

This will not affect every household, such as those who do not receive an allowance because their utility is included with rent.

“Too many Mississippians lose utilities due to inability to pay,” said MDHS Executive Director Christopher Freeze. “This increase in benefits will not only allow us to come to the aid of those who need assistance but also allow us to broaden other programs such as workforce development that give Mississippians the opportunity to increase their quality of life.”

In other states, the rule adjusted utility allowances downward, leading to reduced benefits. Nationally, the Urban Institute estimated 22,000 households would lose eligibility and 71,000 would begin participating in the program — either because they became eligible or are encouraged to sign up because of the increase — as a result of the rule.

In states that stand to see increases, including Alabama and Arizona, 2.5 million households will receive an average of $14 more each month, according to the Urban Institute report.

The other rules changes — tightened work requirements and other eligibility tweaks — are expected to result in 3.7 million fewer people receiving the assistance nationwide, including 26,200 in neighboring Louisiana.

The federal government currently requires people between the ages of 18 and 49 to work at least 20 hours a week or participate in workforce training in order to keep receiving food stamps. But it granted waivers to states with areas of high unemployment.

Among the states with the highest unemployment, Mississippi qualifies for the waiver but chose not to renew it in 2016. The state also passed a law, the Act to Restore Hope Opportunity and Prosperity for Everyone (HOPE), in 2017 promising not to “seek, apply for, accept or renew” any work requirement waiver for the food assistance program in the future, except in the event of a natural disaster.

The new federal rules would restrict these waivers nationwide, imposing the work requirement on areas with unemployment under 7 percent. In October, 16 counties in Mississippi had an unemployment rate of over 7 percent, according to Mississippi Department of Employment Security.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue released a statement saying the new policies “restore the original intent” of the food assistance program, “which is to be a second chance and not a way of life.”

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Anna Wolfe, a native of Tacoma, Wa., is an investigative reporter writing about poverty and economic justice. Before joining the staff at Mississippi Today in September of 2018, Anna worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily newspaper. She also worked as an investigative reporter for the Center for Public Integrity and Jackson Free Press, the capital city’s alternative newsweekly. Anna has received national recognition for her work, including the 2021 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, the 2021 Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the 2021 John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the 2020 Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award and the February 2020 Sidney Award for reporting on Mississippi’s debtors prisons. She received the National Press Foundation’s 2020 Poverty and Inequality Award. She also received first place in the regional Green Eyeshade Awards in 2021 for Public Service in Online Journalism and 2020 for Business Reporting, and the local Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2019 and 2018 for reporting on unfair medical billing practices and hunger in the Mississippi Delta.