By Alan Bjerga
Food-stamp enrollment in the U.S. is declining from record levels, in part because some states are ending benefits earlier than they have to.
Seven states, all led by Republicans, have decided this year to end waivers for some able-bodied recipients that were made available in the 2009 federal stimulus bill -- even though the benefits are federally funded.
Enrollment in what's formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is still nearly twice the level it was before the recession. But the most recent data, for May, showed 43.5 million people were receiving food stamps, down 9 percent from a 2012 peak and the fewest since 2010.
Much of the drop comes from an improving economy, but efforts to reduce enrollments among able-bodied adults are also accelerating the decline.
Under federal law, food stamp benefits are cut off after three months for adults under the age of 50 who don't have dependents unless they find work or engage in a volunteer or job-training activity. The stimulus bill permitted states to waive that provision in areas with high unemployment.
Many states did, and the waivers pushed the percentage of so-called "ABAWDs" -- for "Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents" -- to 10.3 percent of all food-stamp recipients in 2014 from 6.7 percent in 2007, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program. Ending them could push as many as a million people off aid nationwide, according the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a pro-food-stamp group in Washington.
High enrollments rankle Republicans, including presidential nominee Donald Trump, who cited that "43 million Americans are on food stamps" as a sign of economic failure in his acceptance address at the Republican National Convention last month. Democrats pledged to protect aid at their party gathering.
"It's a knee-jerk reaction to say that someone who's getting a couple hundred bucks a month is lazy, so let's throw them off," said Tim Smeeding, a professor at the University of Wisconsin who studies poverty.
In the seven states -- Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and New Jersey -- aid is ending sooner than the government requires. They join eight other states that had discontinued waivers in prior years because of economic conditions or state action: Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Oklahoma, Indiana, Wisconsin and Texas. Other states are ending waivers only for certain regions.
In Wisconsin, reviving work requirements "is part of Governor Walker's effort to move people from government dependence to true independence," said Tom Evenson, a spokesman for Gov. Scott Walker, in an email.
People struggling to find jobs have job-training programs to turn to that allow them to continue benefits, and that "has helped thousands of able-bodied adults gain employment," he said.
Other states said the actual transition won't be disruptive. South Carolina had its own work requirements even while the federal waiver was in effect, Karen Wingo, a spokeswoman with the state's social services department, said in an email.
A build up of its job-training programs and growth in jobs means South Carolina doesn't need the waiver, its governor, Nikki Haley, said in an April news conference announcing the move.
"We are in a position where we don't want that waiver anymore," Haley said. "We see this as an opportunity to give more people work."
Some recipients who have had aid cut off say the disruption is significant.
Anthony Bradford, 29, stopped receiving benefits last year, when Wisconsin ended its waiver. His income comes from side jobs in carpentry and home improvements, but work is difficult to find because he has a criminal record. He's been out of prison since 2011, but prospective employers "don't want to hear any story. Once you're a felon, you're a felon," he said.
He's been getting food from soup kitchens and food shelves while living with his brother in Wisconsin, which cuts costs. "I need a job," said Bradford, who says he continues applying and feels that "something out there is going to come to me."
In the meantime, he and others in the job market struggle, he said. "People gotta survive," he said. "It's easy to judge, but there are a lot of people, they need these food stamps. I'm trying hard to get employed, but right now if my brother wants me to go pick something up at the store, I can't even do that. We need these food stamps."
Food stamp participation and spending both more than doubled from 2007 to 2012, as the combination of double-digit unemployment and increased federal efforts to get eligible recipients in the program boosted rolls. The program cost a record $76.1 billion in 2013.
Enrollments are dropping now due both to the improving economy and the end of the work-waivers for able-bodied adults, said Kevin Concannon, the USDA undersecretary who heads the program.
Dropping recipients from rolls comes with the responsibility of having job-training and placement programs available to reintegrate long-term recipients into the workforce, he said.
"A lot of jobs programs were also cut when unemployment was high, so some states have done a better job than others," he said.
Cutbacks in food-stamp eligibility are likely to persist as long as public suspicion of perceived spending on undeserving poor people persists, Smeeding said.
In an uneven economic recovery, that will create hardships for some, he said. "True, you see some people abuse it," he said. "But this is food, this is America. You can help people eat."
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