JEFFERSON CITY, Mo.—More than 1 million low-income residents in 21 states could soon lose their government food stamps if they fail to meet work requirements that began kicking in this month.
The rule change in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was triggered by the improving economy—specifically, falling unemployment. But it is raising concerns among the poor, social service providers and food pantry workers, who fear an influx of hungry people.
Recent experience in other states indicates that most of those affected will probably not meet the work requirements and will be cut off from food stamps.
For many people, “it means less food, less adequate nutrition. And over the span of time, that can certainly have an impact on health—and the health care system,” said Dave Krepcho, president and chief executive of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.
Advocates say some adults trying to find work face a host of obstacles, including criminal records, disabilities or lack of a driver’s license.
The work-for-food requirements were first enacted under the 1996 welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton and sponsored by then-Rep. John Kasich, who is now Ohio’s governor and a Republican candidate for president.
The provision applies to able-bodied adults ages 18 through 49 who have no children or other dependents in their home. It requires them to work, volunteer or attend education or job-training courses at least 80 hours a month to receive food aid. If they don’t, their benefits are cut off after three months.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture can waive those work rules, either for entire states or certain counties and communities, when unemployment is high and jobs are scarce. Nearly every state was granted a waiver during the recession that began in 2008. But statewide waivers ended this month in at least 21 states, the largest group since the recession.
An Associated Press analysis of food aid figures shows that nearly 1.1 million adults stand to lose their benefits in those 21 states if they do not get a job or an exemption. That includes about 300,000 in Florida, 150,000 in Tennessee and 110,000 in North Carolina. The three states account for such a big share because they did not seek any further waivers for local communities.
In Tennessee, Terry Work said her 27-year-old deaf son recently was denied disability payments, meaning he is considered able-bodied. And that means he stands to lose his food stamps, even though she said her son has trouble keeping a job because of his deafness.
“I know there’s going to be a lot of people in the county hurt by this,” said Work, founder of Helping Hands of Hickman County, a social service agency in a community about an hour west of Nashville.
Nationwide, some 4.7 million food stamp recipients are deemed able-bodied adults without dependents, according to USDA. Only 1 in 4 has any income from a job. They receive an average of $164 a month from the program.
In states that already have implemented the work requirements, many recipients have ended up losing their benefits.
Wisconsin began phasing in work requirements last spring. Of the 22,500 able-bodied adults who became subject to the change between April and June, two-thirds were dropped from the rolls three months later for failing to meet the requirements.
Some states could have applied for partial waivers but chose not to do so.
North Carolina’s Republican-led government enacted a law last fall accelerating implementation of the work requirements and barring the state from seeking waivers unless there is a natural disaster. State Sen. Ralph Hise said the state was doing a disservice to the unemployed by providing them long-term food aid.
“People are developing gaps on their resumes, and it’s actually making it harder for individuals to ultimately find employment,” said Hise, a Republican who represents a rural part of western North Carolina.
In Missouri, the GOP-led Legislature overrode a veto by Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon to enact a law barring the state from waiving work requirements until at least 2019. The three-month clock started ticking Jan. 1 for 60,000 people in Missouri, where unemployment is down to just 4.4 percent.
“We were seeing a lot of people who were receiving food stamps who weren’t even trying to get a job,” said the law’s sponsor, Sen. David Sater, a Republican whose Missouri district includes the tourist destination of Branson. “I know in my area you can find a temporary job for 20 hours (a week) fairly easily. It just didn’t seem right to me to have somebody doing nothing and receiving food stamps.”
Others say it’s not that simple to find work, even with an improving economy.
Joe Heflin, 33, of Jefferson City, said he has been receiving food stamps for more than five years, since an injury ended his steady job as an iron worker and led to mental illness during his recovery. He said he gets nearly $200 a month in food stamps and has no other income. Heflin was recently notified that his food stamps could end if he doesn’t get a job or a disability exemption.
“I think it’s a crummy deal,” Heflin said while waiting in line at a food pantry. “I think they ought to look into individuals more, or at least hear them out. … I depend on it, you know, to eat.”
Policymakers often “don’t realize a lot of the struggles those individuals are dealing with,” said Mariana Chilton, director of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities at Drexel University in Philadelphia.
Some are dealing with trauma from military service or exposure to violence and abuse, Chilton said. Others have recently gotten out of prison, making employers hesitant to hire them. Some adults who are considered able-bodied nonetheless have physical or mental problems.
A study of 4,145 food stamp recipients in Franklin County, Ohio, who became subject to work requirements between December 2013 and February 2015 found that more than 30 percent said they had physical or mental limitations that affected their ability to work. A similar percentage had no high school diploma or equivalency degree. And 61 percent lacked a driver’s license.
“There should have been more thought on how we look at employment and not thinking that people are sitting there, getting food stamps because they are lazy and don’t want to work,” said Octavia Rainey, a community activist in Raleigh, North Carolina.
Some states have programs to help food stamp recipients improve their job skills. Elsewhere, it’s up to individuals to find programs run by nonprofit groups or by other state agencies. Sometimes, that can be daunting.
Rainey said people who received letters informing them they could lose their food stamps sometimes were placed on hold when they called for more information—a problem for those using prepaid calling cards. And in Florida, food aid recipients received letters directing them to a state website for information.
“A lot of these folks, they don’t have computers, they don’t have broadband access,” said Krepcho, the Central Florida food bank executive. “That’s ripe for people falling off the rolls.”
Q&A: Details on Work Requirements for Food Stamp Recipients
Federal rules that took effect this month in many states will require some adult food aid recipients to work if they want to continue receiving federally funded benefits. The requirements generally are kicking in because unemployment rates have fallen.
Here are some questions and answers about the changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as food stamps, which is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Who Is Subject to the Work Requirements?
More than 45 million people receive food stamp benefits in the U.S. But the work requirements at issue apply only to some of the fewer than 5 million recipients who are considered to be able-bodied adults age 18 through 49 and without children or other dependents in their homes.
The 1996 federal welfare reform law requires those people to work, volunteer, perform community service or participate in education or job-skills programs for 80 hours a month. If they don’t, their benefits are cut off after three months.
Federal figures show that many in this category are single adults, with slightly more men than women. Case studies have shown they are less likely than the general population to have high school diplomas and valid driver’s licenses. Advocates say some are homeless, recently released from prison or dealing with trauma from military service, abuse or violence in their communities—all of which can make it harder to get a job.
Why Must Some People Work But Not Others?
The U.S. Department of Agriculture can waive work requirements when unemployment rates are high and jobs are lacking. During the recession that began in 2008, nearly every state received a waiver. But just seven states remain covered by full waivers. Statewide waivers ended this month in at least 21 states, the largest batch since the recession. According to a tally by The Associated Press, that affects nearly 1.1 million people.
States also can request partial work waivers covering certain regions where unemployment is higher. Many states have done this.
For example, about 36,000 residents in the Seattle area must meet the work rules or lose food stamps, although residents in the rest of Washington remain exempt. In Alaska, only an estimated 3,000 food aid recipients in Anchorage must comply with the work rules. In New York, about 51,000 adults became subject to the work requirements Jan. 1, but waivers remain in place for most of New York City, 16 counties and seven other cities.
What Is Likely to Happen as the Work Rules Take Effect?
Many adults are likely to lose their food aid for failing to comply with work requirements if the recent experiences of other states’ holds true.
After Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s administration began enforcing work requirements in October 2014, the number of able-bodied adults receiving food aid fell from about 12,000 people to 2,680 in March 2015.
Two-thirds of Wisconsin residents subject to work rules that took effect last spring were dropped from the rolls three months later for failing to comply.
A similar pattern may already be taking shape elsewhere. In Mississippi, where the end of a statewide work waiver affected about 75,000 people this month, the state Department of Human Services says just 20 percent of people have been showing up for scheduled appointments.
How Could the End of Food Aid Affect Individuals and Communities?
Directors at nonprofit food banks say they expect to see at least a temporary increase in people seeking help as their food stamps go away. It’s also possible that more people may simply go hungry throughout the day.
Several of the states where the work-for-food requirements took effect this month rank high in hunger among their residents. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, Arkansas had the highest rate of residents (8.1 percent) with “very low food security,” defined partly as skipping meals because of a lack of money and food. More than 31,000 people there became subject to the work requirements this month.
Missouri, which ranked second nationally in “very low food security,” has about 60,000 food aid recipients who are newly subject to the work rules.
A State-by-State Look at Federal Food Aid Work Waivers
The federal government ended statewide work waivers this year for certain adults receiving aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, sometimes referred to as food stamps. In some cases, states were able to retain work waivers for certain counties or cities where there are higher unemployment rates and fewer available jobs.
Here’s a state-by-state look at the number of able-bodied adults ages 18 through 49 without dependents who became subject to work requirements this year because of the end of statewide waivers. In most cases, the work requirements kicked in Jan. 1. Benefits will be cut off after three months if people do not comply with the work rules or receive exemptions.
Alabama: About 44,000. Local work waivers remain in 13 of the state’s 67 counties.
Alaska: About 3,000 in Anchorage. Work waivers remain for the rest of the state.
Arizona: About 33,500. That includes 21,000 in Maricopa County on Jan. 1; 11,000 in Pima County on April 1; and 1,500 in Yavapai County on July 1. Work waivers remain elsewhere.
Arkansas: About 31,300. No local work waivers.
Connecticut: About 3,650. Work waivers are ending in 87 towns but will remain in 82 others.
Florida: About 300,000. No local work waivers.
Georgia: About 6,100 in the suburban Atlanta counties of Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall. Work requirements don’t apply in the rest of the state.
Idaho: none. Although Idaho technically lost its federal statewide work waiver this month, the state has been imposing work requirements since late 2011.
Kentucky: About 17,500 in eight counties. Local work waivers remain the state’s other 112 counties.
Maryland: About 15,400 in six counties. Work requirements don’t apply in the rest of the counties or the city of Baltimore.
Massachusetts: About 23,000. Local work waivers remain in some areas.
Mississippi: About 75,000. No local work waivers.
Missouri: About 60,000. No local work waivers.
New Jersey: About 11,000. No local work waivers.
New Mexico: About 24,000. Local work waivers remain in nearly one third of the counties and for Native American tribes.
New York: About 51,000. Local work waivers remain in most of New York City, 16 counties and seven other cities.
North Carolina: About 110,000, including about half Jan. 1 and the other half July 1. No local work waivers will remain.
Oregon: About 9,600 in the Portland area. Work waivers remain for the rest of the state.
Pennsylvania: About 48,000, starting March 1. Local work waivers will remain in 24 of the state’s 67 counties and in 12 cities, including Philadelphia.
Tennessee: About 150,000. No local work waivers.
Washington: About 36,000 in the Seattle area. Work waivers remain in the rest of the state.
West Verginia: About 27,000 in nine counties. Work waivers remain in the rest of the state.
Places With No Work Waivers Due to Previous Decisions
Delaware, Iowa, Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas, Wisconsin, Wyoming.
Places With Partial Work Waivers Due to Previous Decisions
Colorado, Hawaii, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, Virginia.
Places With Statewide Work Waivers
California, District of Columbia, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, Rhode Island, South Carolina.