As many as 1 million Americans will stop receiving food stamps over the course of this year beginning on Friday, the consequence of a controversial work mandate that has been reinstated in 22 states as the economy improves.
The 20-year-old rule — which was suspended in many states during the economic recession — requires that adults without children or disabilities must have a job in order to receive food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for more than three months, with some exceptions. Many states have begun to reimpose the federal rule as the economy recovers, with the largest group reviving it at the beginning of this year. As a result, many recipients’ three-month limit expires today, April 1.
The change has reignited a fierce debate between conservative leaders, who say waiving the mandate discourages people from working, and their liberal counterparts, who say the three-month time limit ignores the reality that jobs are still hard to come by for low-skilled workers.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who helped author the work requirement as a U.S. congressman in 1996, is among the conservative politicians arguing that able-bodied adults should not receive SNAP benefits if they are not working. At the end of 2013, Kasich decided not to request an extension of the statewide waiver of the work mandate, enforcing the rule in all but its most economically depressed, rural counties.
A spokesman for Kasich, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said reinstating the requirement would prod people to seek work in the improving economy.
“These are, again, adults – no dependents, physically and mentally capable of working,” said Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Kasich’s presidential campaign, in a recent interview. “Just as much as we believe in the social safety net, we also believe it’s a sin not to help oneself.”
Between 500,000 and 1 million people will lose SNAP benefits over the course of 2016 as a result of the reinstated work mandate, according to an analysis by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. Currently, about 46 million people receive the aid.
For the federal work requirement to be waived, a jurisdiction must have an unemployment rate above 10 percent, a rate 20 percent higher than the national average, or the local labor market must qualify as weak by other measures. Maryland, New York and several other states automatically reinstated the rule this year as their employment numbers improved. But the economy is still weak enough to meet those conditions in three states where leaders have decided to impose the work mandate anyway – Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia.
Mississippi and West Virginia currently have two of the weakest economies in the country. The unemployment rate in both states is 6.5 percent, which is worse than the national rate of 5 percent and better only than Alaska’s rate of 6.6 percent.
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, a Republican, made a decision similar to Kasich’s, declining to seek an extension for the work-mandate waiver, even though the state’s economy was weak enough to qualify. About 13,000 Kansans became ineligible for SNAP after the suspension ended, and according to research by the conservative group Foundation for Government Accountability, at least 64 percent found some work over the next year and a half. The average income increased from about $4,600 a year, including the food stamps, to about $5,600 a year, the organization found.
The organization has been lobbying lawmakers in state house around the country to reject waivers and enforce the strict rules for able-bodied adults, regardless of economic conditions.
“Unfortunately, many folks – with the best of intentions – sell individuals short with not thinking that they can work,” said Josh Archambault, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.
Brownback’s detractors insist that many of those former SNAP recipients likely would have found work in any case in an improving economy. In general, able-bodied adults rely on SNAP only for short periods of time during spells of unemployment. Three quarters work in the year before or the year after they receive food stamps, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Opponents of the work mandate say the three-month time limit is out of sync with the reality of the current job market. The average amount of time unemployed Americans spend looking for work has fallen since its peak in 2011, but is still almost 30 weeks, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – roughly two and half times longer than the work requirement allows.
“Making people hungrier isn’t going to make them find work faster,” said Rebecca Vallas, who is the managing director of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “One of the most helpful things for someone looking for work is helping them not worry about putting food on the table.”
While state officials have mailed out notices and news media covered the change, food bank staff around the country are worried that those affected by the rule will only learn about it when government assistance doesn’t arrive this month.
“This is something we are watching very closely,” said Margarette Purvis, who is the president and chief executive officer of the Food Bank For New York City. “I think a lot of people don’t know about the rule. I’m worried a lot of people will be surprised when they don’t receive their food stamps.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Max Ehrenfreund, Roberto A. Ferdman