By Andy Sher

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam and administration officials today announced plans to reinstate federal work requirements for "able-bodied" adults without dependents for eligibility in the federal food stamp program.

In a news release, administration officials estimate about 58,000 of the 1 million or so Tennesseans now on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or "SNAP" as the food stamps program is now called, now do not meet work requirements and will be affected.

The move is scheduled to occur Feb. 1.

Haslam also plans to push legislation next year in the General Assembly "to incentivize work, reduce fraud and "strengthen program integrity" in the state's welfare programs.

For example, the state will seek approval to join a multi-state cooperative to identify instances of "dual participation" in SNAP programs in other states.

Tennessee's work SNAP requirements were suspended in 2008 during the Great Recession when tens of thousands of state residents lost their jobs.

Haslam and Human Services Commissioner Danielle Barnes say that with the state's record low unemployment rates and significant job growth, the waiver is no longer needed across most of the state. But it will remain in place in 16 counties designated as economically distressed.

The work requirement is already in place either fully or partially in nine counties, seven of which surround Davidson County where a red-hot, Nashville-area economy has shown faster improvement in hiring, according to the governor's office.

"This waiver was necessary at a time when people were hurting from the recession," said Haslam, a Republican. "But nearly a decade later, Tennessee is one of the top locations in the Southeast for high-quality jobs, and it's now difficult to justify waiving the work requirement for adults without dependents who are able to work."

The governor also said "we have experienced record low unemployment rates and substantial job growth in Tennessee, and if you can't find a job, we are here to help you through a network of resources and opportunities across the state."

Before unveiling today's move, the Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP, conducted an annual review of all 95 counties. Human services workers evaluated criteria such as unemployment rates, labor surplus status, poverty rates and per capita income.

As a result of the review, the work requirement waiver will remain in 16 counties designated as distressed.

"We are excited to collaborate with other state agencies, local communities and employers to build a bridge connecting our customers directly with employment opportunities," Barnes said.

She called education and employment "critical for individuals to build a sturdy foundation for stronger communities."

To satisfy the able-bodied adults without children work requirement, an individual must fulfill one of the following:

* Work at least 20 hours per week.

* Participate in qualifying education and training activities.

* Participate in an approved workfare/volunteer program for at least 20 hours per week.

The human services department will work with the Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Department of Economic and Community Development to assist individuals in meeting the work requirement in affected counties.

Besides seeking approval to joint the multi-state cooperative to identify instances of SNAP participation in dual states, other legislative reforms envisioned by Haslam include:

* Strengthening investigations of multiple EBT card replacements;

* Increasing the ability to investigate fraud with additional tools.

* Reducing the "fiscal cliff" faced by families in meeting the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF or Families First) work requirements by providing a work incentive transitional benefit.

* Encouraging family stabilization by linking the TANF maximum benefit to the current standard of need.

(c)2017 the Chattanooga Times/Free Press (Chattanooga, Tenn.)