A fresh round of food stamp cuts at the state level are underway, on top of federal food stamp reductions that hit millions of Americans twice since November. In some states, policymakers have imposed additional cuts that jeopardize benefits for hundreds of thousands.
The impact of the reductions is just beginning to take hold, or soon will.
“They’re getting cut off and seeking help,” said Debi Kreutzman of the Kansas Food Bank, which is dealing with changes that could affect 20,000 Kansans. “We’re starting to see that come into play now, and I’m afraid it’s only going to get worse.”
The state cuts target a relatively small portion of the food stamp population: low-income able-bodied adults, without children, 18 to 50 years old -- estimated to be about 10 percent of the more than 47 million in the program. In some states, recipients are losing benefits because of reinstated work requirements as a condition of qualifying for food stamps.
These cuts come on top of an across-the-board 5 percent reduction of benefits to all food stamp recipients’ benefits last November. As part of the farm bill earlier this year, Congress also closed a loophole and cut benefits for 850,000 households, although many states affected are moving to block the cuts for now.
The federal food stamp program (formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) limits how long low-income childless, able-bodied adults can receive food stamps to three months in a three-year period, unless they are working or participating in a training or workfare program for at least 20 hours a week. Other food stamp recipients face less stringent work requirements, and there are exemptions for those with children or other caregivers.
The 2009 stimulus bill suspended these requirements through 2010, and after that states were allowed to waive them if they met certain conditions based on their economies and job markets. Most every state has waived the requirements since 2011.
In recent years, though, some states — many controlled by Republicans — began to rethink the waivers, which were part of the 1996 welfare reforms and designed to give states flexibility in times of high unemployment. With the start of the new federal fiscal year last October, eight went back to enforcing the requirements, and 10 waived them only in part of their state or for part of this year. The changes are just beginning to be felt in some of those states.
In Delaware, officials insist a waiver is unnecessary because the state’s work-training and placement program has been able to manage the growing ranks of the jobless. But the Food Bank of Delaware said some recipients have hit the three-month cutoff unable to find work. The state might soon reconsider the requirements.
“The case load is growing pretty dramatically,” said Elaine Archangelo, director of the Division of Social Services for Delaware. “So we have been considering if there are areas where we could, should request a waiver.”
Of states without waivers, Iowa, Nebraska and Wyoming were no longer eligible, because their economies and job markets had improved, as measured by the eight factors considered by the federal government when determining waiver eligibility. Others, such as Delaware, Kansas, Oklahoma, Utah and Virginia, are going without them despite being eligible for at least partial waivers.
Ohio, Colorado, New York, Texas and Wisconsin are all waiving the work requirements for only part of the year or in certain areas, even though they were eligible for full coverage. Minnesota, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota and Vermont were eligible only for partial waivers. For a full list of each state’s status for this year, click here.
Ohio chose to go without a waiver for most of the state. Only 16 out of 88 counties are exempt — mainly rural, Appalachian regions where the average unemployment rate was 10.2 percent or higher in 2011 through 2012. The situation left food banks and food stamp outreach workers in Ohio scrambling, facing a shortage of jobs and training opportunities.
“It’s a lack of jobs, not a lack of willingness to work,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt of the Ohio Association of Food Banks. “In an environment where we have college graduates that are now competing for low-wage jobs, for folks with multiple barriers to employment, it’s going to be difficult for them to find work.”
Exact figures on the effect in Ohio are hard to come by. Of the nearly 141,000 people in the affected category receiving food stamps before, 98,000 were still receiving them in January, but it’s impossible to know exactly why people left the program. According to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, in January more than 16,000 were suspended or kicked off the program due to the work requirements.
Ben Johnson of the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services disagreed with Hamler-Fugitt’s assertion that jobs aren’t available. “Our only goal was to provide benefits and job training where appropriate,” he said. “We’ve worked very hard, and our county partners have worked especially hard, to notify individuals and bring them in and find appropriate training and employment activities.”
Passed by the Republican-controlled legislature, Wisconsin will re-impose the work requirements this year as part of a job-growth pitch from Republican Gov. Scott Walker. The changes — which were part of a jobs package that also included $35 million for job training — will phase in starting in July and cover the entire state by next January. About 63,000 could be affected.
In some states, the decision to reinstate work requirements was part of an effort to push people off food stamps and back to the workforce, as in Kansas, where officials said jobs, not public welfare, was the cure for poverty.
In Oklahoma, Republican House Speaker T.W. Shannon, who’s now running for U.S. Senate, pushed the change as welfare reform. As many as 233,000 were put under review , according to the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, many more than originally expected.
“Unfortunately, some believe compassion is measured by how many people you can keep on a government aid program,” Shannon said in a statement when fellow Republican Gov. Mary Fallin signed his bill. “Through personal responsibility, hard work and a drive to better one’s situation, people can establish their independence and begin down the road of prosperity.”
Food banks and other advocates see things differently. They say the economy hasn't recovered enough to support reinstating the work requirements. Many affected are very poor, often uneducated, sometimes homeless who would have difficulty meeting the requirements anyway.
“Certainly a lot of people max out with that three-month period,” said Matt Talley, who works on outreach for the Food Bank of Delaware, which includes helping those who lack transportation or have other barriers to meeting requirements. “It’s just a matter of trying to help them find work, or help them find an opportunity to participate in a job training program.”
The changes in states are coming as part of a broader effort in Congress to trim food stamps, after spending hit a record high of $82 billion in fiscal year 2013.
The work requirements have been a popular subject in that debate. House Republicans in Congress proposed reinstating the requirements nationwide last year, citing a recovering economy and warning about the cost of suspending the requirements for too long. But Democrats rejected that, leaving states to enact the changes themselves.
“In general, having a work requirement is good policy,” said Rachel Sheffield of the conservative Heritage Foundation. “It serves as a gatekeeper to ensure that those who need assistance are able to get it, but at the same time encourages those who might not necessarily need it to look for work first.”
Safety net advocates say the average monthly benefit of about $275 is hardly enough to lull people into complacency and out of the workforce. And in many areas, it’s possible the economy hasn’t yet recovered enough for such strict requirements.
“What happens to an able-bodied adult without dependents that is actively looking and trying to get into the workforce but is unable to?” asked Helly Lee of the Center for Law and Social Policy, an advocacy group for low-income people. “It’s a downward spiral if you’re unable to find jobs. It’s hard to climb out of it if there are constantly barriers along the way.”