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 is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter who covers inequity and corruption in government safety net programs, nonprofit service providers and institutions affecting the marginalized. She began reporting for Mississippi Today in 2018, after she approached the editor with the idea of starting a poverty beat, the first of its kind in the state. Wolfe has received national recognition for her years-long coverage of Mississippi’s welfare program, in which she exposed new details about how officials funneled tens of millions of federal public assistance funds away from needy families and instead to their friends, families and the pet projects of famous athletes. Since joining Mississippi Today, she has received several national honors including the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting, the Livingston Award, two Goldsmith Prizes for Investigative Reporting, the Collier Prize for State Government Accountability, the Sacred Cat Award, the Nellie Bly Award, the John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim Excellence in Criminal Justice Reporting Award, the Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, the Sidney Award, the National Press Foundation’s Poverty and Inequality Award and others. Previously, Wolfe worked for three years at Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide newspaper, where she covered city hall, health care, and wrote stories about hunger and medical billing, earning the Bill Minor Prize for Investigative Journalism two years in a row. Born and raised on the Puget Sound in Washington State, Wolfe moved to Mississippi in 2012 to attend Mississippi State University, where she currently serves on the Digital Journalism Advisory Board. She has lived in Jackson, Mississippi since graduating in 2014.