This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates almost 700,000 people across the country will lose food stamps in a new Trump Administration rule announced December 4. Regional anti-hunger advocates and policy analysts say the Ohio Valley — and Appalachia in particular — could be disproportionately affected by this rule. 

In general, the rule will make it harder for states to waive requirements that low-income able-bodied adults without dependents work (or participate in a work program) for at least 20 hours or lose their food stamps. USDA officials said the rule is to encourage SNAP recipients to find employment.

“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an infinitely giving hand,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a conference call Wednesday. “What’s happening is that states are seeking waivers for wide swaths of their populations, and millions of people who could work are continuing to receive SNAP benefits.”

Current SNAP rules limit recipients to receiving three months of aid out of a three-year period, unless they’re working or enrolled in worker training or other education. But states can issue waivers to high-unemployment, economically distressed counties where it may be more difficult to find employment to meet this requirement. Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia are all receiving partial waivers for the newest fiscal year. 

This new rule, first proposed in February and planned to go into effect in April, will raise the bar for how economically distressed a county has to be to qualify. Specifically, a county would have to have an unemployment rate that is 20 percent higher than the national average while also having an average unemployment rate of six percent or higher over 24 months.

According to the research group Policy Matters Ohio, 41 counties in Ohio currently receive waivers — most of them in the southeastern Appalachian portion of the state. An analysis of SNAP data last year by The Daily Yonder, an outlet reporting on rural issues, shows out of the top 100 counties most reliant on SNAP, about 20 of those are in Kentucky and West Virginia. 

In Clay County, not far from West Virginia’s capital, nearly half of the county’s 9,000 people receive SNAP benefits. According to a 2018 USDA report, SNAP recipients in the Ohio Valley made up nearly 6 percent of all recipients in the country, totaling an estimated 2,305,000 people that year.

Advocates working on poverty and hunger issues say that means the rule change will hit harder in the region.

“You will not see food banks make this up. We cannot make up for the loss of these kinds of benefits. We just can’t,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Food Banks. “If we see a massive surge on our system, the very agencies in our communities will give away what food they have, and when the food is gone, the shelves are empty, they’ll close their doors.”

Hamler-Fugitt also said she considers “able-bodied adults with dependents” to be a misnomer, because other people including extended family members that are not legal dependents could rely on the food budget provided by SNAP. 

Dustin Pugel, a policy analyst at the left-leaning research group Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, said most counties in Kentucky already qualify for waivers. But this new rule could make it difficult for states to request new waivers in the future, especially during economic downturns. 

He said while more than 100 counties in Kentucky qualify for waivers currently, only around 30 would qualify under the new rule.

“There’s over 4,000 retailers in the state that accept SNAP benefits. And they’re keenly aware of people who come in each month to buy their groceries,” Pugel said. “When you start losing that, you also start losing the economic benefit it has to grocery stores and the benefit to the broader economy.”

Pugel said this new rule is only one of several the Trump administration is proposing to alter access to SNAP, including a rule that could take away benefits from more than three million people across the country

Other analysts say the continuing collapse of the coal industry in the Ohio Valley will only increase reliance on the program. Seth DiStefano, policy outreach director for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, points to the recent bankruptcy of Ohio-based coal giant Murray Energy as an example of that decline.

“There are entire swaths of our southern coalfields that have yet to recover at all from the collapse of the coal market. So, the impact is very simple, it just hurts people,” DiStefano said. “When these federal food assistance dollars come out, they’re just pulled out of the economy, there will be parts in West Virginia where the only place to buy groceries will close.”