Why more food stamp recipients are now required to work

Joe Heflin and a volunteer load groceries into his car at the Samaritan Center food pantry in Jefferson City, Mo. Heflin, 33, also receives food stamps but could lose them if he doesn’t meet newly enforced work requirements.
Joe Heflin and a volunteer load groceries into his car at the Samaritan Center food pantry in Jefferson City, Mo. Heflin, 33, also receives food stamps but could lose them if he doesn’t meet newly enforced work requirements.
(David A. Lieb / Associated Press)

Federal rules that took effect this year in many states will require some adult food aid recipients to work if they want to continue receiving federally funded benefits. The requirements generally are kicking in because unemployment rates have fallen.

Here are some questions and answers about the changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as food stamps, which is administered through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Who has to work to get food stamps?


More than 45 million people receive food stamp benefits in the U.S. But the work requirements at issue apply only to some of the fewer than 5 million recipients who are considered to be able-bodied adults ages 18 through 49 and without children or other dependents in their homes.

The 1996 federal welfare reform law requires those people to work, volunteer, perform community service or participate in education or job skills programs for 80 hours a month. If they don’t, their benefits are cut off after three months.

Federal figures show that many in this category are single adults, with slightly more men than women. Case studies have shown they are less likely than the general population to have high school diplomas and valid driver’s licenses.

Advocates say some are homeless, recently released from prison or dealing with trauma from military service, abuse or violence in their communities — all of which can make it harder to get a job.

Why must some people work but not others?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture can waive work requirements when unemployment rates are high and jobs are lacking. During the recession that began in 2008, nearly every state received a waiver. But just seven states remain covered by full waivers, including California.

Statewide waivers ended this month in at least 21 states, the largest batch since the recession. According to a tally by the Associated Press, that affects nearly 1.1 million people.

States also can request partial work waivers covering certain regions where the unemployment rate is higher. Many states have done this.

For example, about 36,000 residents in the Seattle area must meet the work rules or lose food stamps, although residents in the rest of Washington state remain exempt.

In Alaska, only an estimated 3,000 food aid recipients in Anchorage must comply with the work rules. In New York, about 51,000 adults became subject to the work requirements Jan. 1, but waivers remain in place for most of New York City, 16 counties and seven other cities.

What’s the likely fallout?

Many adults are likely to lose their food aid for failing to comply with work requirements if the recent experiences of other states holds true.

After Maine Gov. Paul LePage’s administration began enforcing work requirements in October 2014, the number of able-bodied adults receiving food aid fell from about 12,000 people to 2,680 in March 2015.

Two-thirds of Wisconsin residents subject to work rules that took effect last spring were dropped from the rolls three months later for failing to comply.

A similar pattern may already be taking shape elsewhere. In Mississippi, where the end of a statewide work waiver affected about 75,000 people this month, the state Department of Human Services says just 20% of people have been showing up for scheduled appointments.

Could people go hungry?

Directors at nonprofit food banks say they expect to see at least a temporary increase in people seeking help as their food stamps are cut. It’s also possible that more people may simply go hungry throughout the day.

Several of the states where the work-for-food requirements took effect this month rank high in hunger among their residents. According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture report, Arkansas had the highest rate of residents (8.1%) with “very low food security,” defined partly as skipping meals because of a lack of money and food. More than 31,000 people there became subject to the work requirements this month.

Missouri, which ranked second nationally in “very low food security,” has about 60,000 food aid recipients who are newly subject to the work rules.

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