Almost 50,000 able-bodied, working age residents receiving food stamps in Cook County, Illinois, will be forced to find jobs as of January next year.
The change is the result of Cook County’s falling unemployment rate, the Chicago Tribune reports, as it is no longer able to qualify for waivers from the federal government granted for high unemployment rates or when jobs are scarce.
According to the publication, the work requirement applies to individuals who are part of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, also known as SNAP, which provides nutrition benefits to supplement the food budgets of 826,000 residents in need—the majority of whom are elderly, children, or people with disabilities.
Able-bodied SNAP participants under 50, as well as those not living with children or other dependents, will soon be restricted to three months of food assistance in a three-year period unless they work at least 80 hours a month.
SNAP participants who take part in work-related activities, such as the SNAP Employment and Training Program or volunteering, will also be exempt from the new work requirements, which come into effect on Jan. 1.
States are able to request waivers from the work requirements for areas with an unemployment rate above 10 percent or a lack of sufficient jobs over a 3- to 12-month period. A recent 24-month average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average for the same 24-month period also qualifies areas to request such waiver.
For many years, Illinois, like a number of other states, enjoyed a statewide waiver to the work requirement. However, Cook County’s unemployment rate is now too low to qualify for the waiver.
Last month, the Illinois Department of Human Services submitted a waiver request for every county in the state except Cook and DuPage, where unemployment rates averaged 3.9 percent over the 24-month period against a national average of 4 percent.
“Unfortunately, after going through the numbers in a variety of ways in the course of many weeks, we realized there was no way we could exempt Cook County,” Grace Hou, secretary for the Illinois Department of Human Services, told the Chicago Tribune.
Roughly 140,000 SNAP recipients across the state would be required to work without the waiver.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, a food bank that supplies the area’s food pantries, said it is concerned that many of the affected SNAP participants may not be able to meet the work threshold.
“Simply put, taking away their food assistance isn’t going to help them find work,” they told the publication.
The recent change comes amid the Trump administration’s attempts to focus on job creation while scaling back the federal food assistance program, which currently feeds more than 37 million Americans.
In July this year, the administration proposed a change in the way states calculate who is eligible for the SNAP program, called broad-based categorical eligibility.
Under the proposed change, people whose gross income is 130 percent above the federal poverty line (currently $12,490) or have more than $2,250 in assets, will no longer qualify to receive federal food benefits.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that 3.6 million people in the 39 states will lose their benefits—nearly one out of 10 households.