Am. Samoa Food Stamp Program Unaffected By Federal Cuts

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Once ARRA money was used up, prior funding levels restored

By B. Chen

PAGO PAGO, American Samoa (The Samoa News, Nov. 4, 2013) – The nearly 4,600 locals who are receiving monthly benefits under the American Samoa Nutrition Assistance Program (ASNAP) — commonly known as the food stamp program — are not affected by recent cuts imposed on food stamp benefits for those in the US.

ASNAP, which is under the Department of Human and Social Services (DHSS), will continue to issue monthly benefit checks to its clients, said DHSS Director Taeaoafua Dr. Meki Solomona last week in response to Samoa News inquiries.

In the US, benefits decreased starting last Friday, Nov. 1 for more than 47 million Americans who receive food stamps. This comes at a time when Congress is negotiating further cuts to the program.

The cuts, according to the AP, are a result of "a temporary benefit from the 2009 economic stimulus that boosts food stamp dollars" no longer being available beginning Nov. 1

Taeaoafua explained that food stamp recipients in the US are affected because when Congress, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), authorized an increase of 13.6% increase in benefits for them in April 2009, this opened the doors for more people applying and being accepted into the program. This meant more benefits were being handed out to more people.

But this was not the case for American Samoa. The DHSS director explained that while the nation welcomed the 13.6% increase approved for them, the territory submitted a request to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) for an additional 6.4% increase (20% total) which was later approved and went into effect in January 2010.

(The request for a 20% increase for local food stamp recipients was made to reflect the actual increase in food costs in American Samoa at the time, based on reports from the Department of Commerce’s Consumer Price Index).

Taeaoafua explained that once the ARRA money allotted for the territory was fully expended, they reverted back to using money allocated for ASNAP to operate locally and that’s why the local food stamp program is not affected by the recent cuts.

He said the USDA granted approval to DHSS to continue issuing food stamps on the new increased benefit level using food stamp money and that is what’s happening.

"Since we implemented the 20% increase in benefits, we’ve never had to roll back on the benefit level, neither have we had to let any staff member go, despite the economic downturn," Taeaoafua said.

However, he added, the federal sequestration is still in effect and is set to kick in for the second year in January 2014. If Congress doesn’t act on it, funding level for states and territories will be affected across the board and of course, American Samoa will be included — at that time.

Taeaoafua said that everyone in the territory who qualifies for food stamps is on the program and their numbers — as far as participants — have remained steady, unlike the US where the number of clients ballooned following the increase in benefits in 2009.

On average, DHSS pays out over $1 million every month between food stamps and WIC checks.

According to the AP, the food stamp program has more than doubled in cost since 2008, now costing almost $80 billion a year. Last Wednesday, negotiations in Congress started on a wide-ranging farm bill, including cuts to the food stamp program. "Five-year farm bills passed by both the House and the Senate would cut food stamps… But the two chambers are far apart on the amounts," Yahoo News reports.

"Legislation passed by the GOP-controlled House would cut food stamps by an additional $4 billion annually and tighten eligibility requirements"…. and "the Senate farm bill would cut a tenth of the House amount, with Democrats and President Barack Obama opposing major cuts."

On the local front, Taeaoafua assures local food stamp recipients that they don’t need to worry, as they will continue to receive their monthly benefits, despite what is happening in the US.

Those interested in the ASNAP program must either be elderly, blind, or disabled. In addition, the applicant must not exceed a gross monthly income of $1,008 and they must have clearance from the Immigration Board to reside in the territory (if necessary).

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