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Up to 1 Million People Could Lose Food Stamps in 2016

Nearly half the states are reinstating work requirements that had been suspended since the Great Recession. But advocates say it’s still too soon.

(AP/Charlie Neibergall)
Between 500,000 and 1 million Americans will lose government assistance aimed at reducing hunger, according to a new report by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Those are big numbers. But it's the reason why people will lose their benefits -- they can't meet state work requirements -- that has advocacy groups for the poor most worried.

Twenty-three states are reimposing time limits that had been suspended due to high unemployment since the Great Recession. This year, most of those states no longer qualify for a federal waiver because unemployment has ticked down in all or part of the state.

The time limits are a remnant of the 1996 welfare law. About one-tenth of the people who receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) are able-bodied adults without dependent children. This sliver of the SNAP population can't receive more than three months of SNAP benefits in any 36-month period unless they are employed or in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.

But most states don't offer enough slots in work or training programs to meet the demand, the report finds. As a result, people willing to work or gain work experience through volunteering can still lose their benefits. (Unlike some other welfare programs, SNAP does not allow nondisabled childless adults to meet the work requirement by regular searching and applying for jobs.)

Advocates have pushed back, telling lawmakers in Maine, for example, that declining unemployment rates -- the rationale for using the time limits again -- are no longer an accurate indicator of need, especially in rural areas. There aren't enough jobs and unemployment rates don't include the long-term unemployed who have stopped looking for one, said Alysia Melnick, the policy director for United Way in the Portland area. Other measures of the economy's health, such as the employment-to-population ratio, are worse than they were before the Great Recession. Without sufficient work, training or volunteer opportunities, Melnick said, "our neighbors may have already been forced to skip meals, ration food [or] purchase cheaper, less healthy options." What's more, she said, some might have chosen to forgo other needs such as rent, medicine, gas or heat.

For a number of reasons, the people about to lose their benefits this year are those most in need of help. Data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that they have lower levels of education and lower incomes than the general SNAP population. About a quarter haven't finished high school, and the average gross income for an individual in a year is about $2,000.

While some governors, such as Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, have said that the time limits spur people to find work, a study by the Ohio Association of Foodbanks casts some doubt on that assertion. The association assessed more than 4,800 able-bodied adults without dependent children in Franklin County between 2013 and 2015 and found that these people faced physical, mental and systemic barriers to employment. Even though welfare agencies had identified these recipients as able-bodied adults, a portion of them really couldn't work. More than 12 percent had a self-reported disability, such as back and shoulder injuries, and almost 10 percent had a mental limitation, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The Ohio report also noted that this population faced other system-related barriers to employment. About 60 percent didn't have a driver's license and 40 percent said they didn't have access to reliable transportation. About 34 percent said they were last employed at least two years ago, which can be a disadvantage on job applications. And more than 35 percent had a felony conviction, another deterrent to hiring for some prospective employers.

States that have already reimposed the time limits, such as Maine, Oklahoma and Kansas, have seen SNAP caseloads drop as people couldn't meet the work requirement and lost benefits. While governors in those states say that people are leaving the food assistance program because they found jobs, data from the Ohio Association of Foodbanks suggest very few actually leave for that reason. When food bank staff followed up with a random sample of  able-bodied adults without dependent children who had stopped receiving benefits, only a quarter said they exited because they found work. A higher percentage, about 40 percent, said they were kicked off the program for not meeting the weekly work requirement.

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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