(U.S. Department of Agriculture)

Advocates are heralding legislation loosening eligibility rules for food stamps as the most significant expansion of public benefits in Virginia since the state expanded Medicaid three years ago.

The bill, which passed the General Assembly last month with unanimous support, will open up the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to an estimated 25,000 additional families — bringing in more than $100 million in federal aid the state has effectively been rejecting.

“It’s borderline immoral that we were letting people starve when we had the wherewithal at our fingertips to do something about it,” said Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, who sponsored the legislation.

To qualify for SNAP benefits under Virginia’s current rules, an applicant must earn 130 percent of the federal poverty threshold, which for a family of three is set at $28,236 per year.

Under the new rules, applicants making 200 percent of the threshold or lower would be eligible, which works out to just under $44,000 for a family of three or $25,760 for an individual.

The legislation also eliminates a cap on assets that makes people with $2,000 or more in savings ineligible unless they are elderly or disabled, in which case the cap is $3,000.

Advocates had called the asset cap particularly frustrating because it required people to essentially draw down whatever resources they might have before receiving help.

“The idea is if you have money you need to pay for food, which is super messed up — to tell people, ‘Why don’t you get further into poverty before we bail you out,’” said Salaam Bhatti, a public benefits attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which recently released a SNAP benefits eligibility calculator.

About 705,000 Virginians received SNAP benefits totaling $1 billion in 2019, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The average monthly benefits under the program was $128 per family member.

Virginia has had the ability to expand eligibility for SNAP benefits at almost no cost to the state since 1985. Virginia is one of fewer than 10 states where lawmakers have not taken advantage of the program, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“This is really a holdover of negative stereotypes about people with low incomes and public benefit programs,” Carrie Welton, the director of public policy at the Hope Center, which advocates for public benefits programs nationally. “And I think Virginia is a great example of how the villanization of these programs actually harmed the commonwealth and left hundreds of millions of federal dollars on the table that had been available.”

In addition to helping people who receive the benefits, she said the expansion will also make it easier for the state to administer public benefits programs by making it possible to automatically qualify people for SNAP benefits when they’re approved for other welfare programs like Medicaid and TANF.

Supporters also stressed the broader economic benefits, noting the new money will be spent at grocery stores, farmers markets and other local businesses.

Helmer said he was pleased to see the legislation received unanimous support despite being rejected in past years when GOP lawmakers controlled the House and Senate. Because the eligibility change was also included in the state budget, the Department of Social Services can begin implementing the new rules as soon as Gov. Ralph Northam signs the document.

“This is about feeding people, and there’s nothing more basic than that,” he said.