Southwestern Indiana's Catholic Community Newspaper

Bill To Enhance Access To Food Assistance Heads To Governor's Desk

By Rigid Curtis Ayer, Statehouse Correspondent For Indiana's Catholic Newspapers

    INDIANAPOLIS—“We do a very good job balancing budgets and doing the work of government, but we also have to do a better job of offering a hand-up rather than a hand-out,” said Sen. James Merritt, R-Indianapolis, author of two proposals that would enhance food assistance benefits for low-income Hoosiers. One of those proposals cleared a final legislative hurdle during the last week of the Indiana General Assembly. The Indiana Catholic Conference supports both plans to increase access to food assistance.

    “I’ve authored Senate Bill 154 and Senate Bill 9 to take the straps off of SNAP,” said Merritt.

    Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP, is a federal program designed to alleviate hunger and address poverty. Formerly known as the food stamp program, SNAP helps low-income people and families buy food. SNAP benefits are provided in the form of an electronic benefit card (EBT) which acts like a debit card and can be used in grocery store for the purchase of food.  SNAP is regulated by the Unites States Department of Agriculture and administered in Indiana by the Family and Social Services Administration.   

    Senate Bill 154, which passed the House unanimously, April 4, would increase asset limit on SNAP benefits for Hoosier recipients from $2,250 to $5,000 per household. The asset limit includes children’s assets; real estate, other than a person’s home; cash and bank accounts. Besides the asset limits, persons must pass a gross income test of not more than 130 percent of poverty to qualify for SNAP benefits.

    Merritt said when a person has been terminated from a job, yet fails the asset test in qualifying for SNAP, or food stamps, people are caught in between. “The goal of Senate Bill 154 is to try to fill that gap. We all hope that unemployment is not a permanent, but a temporary situation,” The Indianapolis lawmaker said, “While SNAP is a federal program, Indiana has the ability to clamp down or ease up on persons who might need temporary help and emergency assistance.”

    Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, testified in support of the bill, saying that in 2015, the Indiana bishops published a pastoral letter regarding poverty entitled “Poverty at the Crossroads; The Church’s Response to Poverty in Indiana.”

    “Its focus is to call Catholics and all people of goodwill in Indiana to address poverty in their midst, and to focus on the areas of public policies that most directly address and alleviate poverty and its effects,” said Tebbe.

    Quoting the pastoral letter, Tebbe said, “‘The Gospels insist that God’s heart has a special place for the poor, so much that God himself has ‘become poor’ (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus recognized their suffering and he had compassion on their loneliness and fear. He never looked away from their plight or acted as if it did not concern him. Always, our Lord stood with the poor – comforting their sorrows, healing their wounds and feeding their bodies and their souls. He challenged his friends to recognize the poor and not remain unmoved.’”

    From the Church’s perspective, Tebbe said, it is important that these matters be adjusted so that eligible families have access to food. Tebbe says it is important to raise the savings-asset amount in order to help families maintain dignity and reduce poverty. Forcing families to reduce meager savings only exaggerates the problem in subsequent weeks and months, forcing families to not be able to sustain themselves – not only for food but for other needs as well.

    “We have a responsibility to the poor,” said Tebbe. “Senate Bill 154 updates the law and benefits those in need and the common good.”

    Senate Bill 9, also authored by Merritt, passed the Senate but failed in the House. The proposal would have allowed Indiana to opt out of a federal law that bans convicted drug felons from receiving the SNAP benefits.

    “We support efforts to enhance access to SNAP benefits for those returning from incarceration back into society because it helps former offenders move forward with their lives,” said Tebbe. “Senate Bill 9 would have helped offenders get the food they need to become self-sufficient.” Tebbe said he was very disappointed Senate Bill 9 failed to pass the House because it would have been a “perfect complement” to legislation passed to address Indiana’s opioid crisis.

    Merritt said if it’s the state’s goal is to eradicate the heroin epidemic in five years, a comprehensive solution to the problem must be the way forward. Lifting the ban on people who exit the department of corrections after serving their time for a drug felony is one part of this comprehensive plan.