Childless Adults Face Food Stamp Cut-Off

Some years ago, I was fired from a job I’d had for a long time. I was told my position had been restructured out of existence. But it sure felt like firing to me.

This was during a recession. And as time went on — and hopes dwindled — I got to thinking about what would happen if I never found work again.

I realized that I couldn’t rely on any of the major public benefits programs because I was a relatively young, able-bodied adult with no children.

If I’d sunk into poverty earlier, I could have gotten food stamps — though hardly at a level that would have enabled me to eat three squares a day.

But Congress had decided that people like me had to earn their food stamps by demonstrating personal responsibility — this as part of the same law that created the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

As with the TANF, “personal responsibility” means, among other things, working or preparing for work.

So under ordinary circumstances, most of us able-bodied adults without dependents can get food stamps for only three months in any three-year period unless we’re working at least 20 hours a week or engaged, for the same amount of time, in a job training or workfare program, i.e., unpaid public service.

The Recovery Act suspended this time limit through September 2010. President Obama’s proposed Fiscal Year 2012 budget would have reinstated the suspension.

But the proposal went nowhere. Hardly surprising when House Republicans had decided that the food stamp program was growing out of all compass and should be converted to a block grant like TANF.

For the most part, however, ABAWDs have been okay because the law allows states to get a waiver from the time limit for those who live in areas where the unemployment rate is over 10% or there are “insufficient jobs.”

I’ve tried to figure out whether this long-standing policy will provide a reasonable substitute for a reinstatement of the Recovery Act suspension. Very difficult because most of the available data are for states as a whole, not areas within states.

This much seems clear. Very few, if any agencies will be able to claim a statewide waiver in Fiscal Year 2013.

As of December, unemployment rates were higher than 10% in only four states and the District of Columbia. Seems likely that fewer states will qualify on this basis when the new fiscal year begins.

Which leaves the “insufficient jobs” option. Memos from the federal Food Nutrition Service indicate that it’s been using the trigger criteria for the Extended Benefits portion of unemployment insurance to decide whether states qualify for a year-long statewide waiver.

As I wrote awhile ago, states “trigger off” EB when their average unemployment rate for the current three-month period is no longer at least 6.5% higher than during the comparable period in a recent prior year.

So more states will fall off the trigger list as time goes on, even though their unemployment rates are well above normal.

This doesn’t mean states won’t be able to claim waivers. But it seems they’ll have to revert to the much more restrictive Department of Labor “surplus area” lists — generally local jurisdictions where the unemployment rate is 20% higher than the national rate.

Perhaps in ordinary times it makes sense to say that able-bodied adults who need food stamp benefits should work or prepare for work if they can. Whether they should be coerced into working for no pay is a separate issue.

But these aren’t ordinary times.

There are still nearly four times as many people looking for work as jobs available.

Job re-training programs are reportedly stressed to the max. And it seems reasonable to suppose that a fair number of the longer-term jobless ABAWDs have already completed one anyway. Doubtful they could get into another that would carry them through till they found work.

So the end of the current ABAWD waivers will almost surely mean that more low-income people go hungry. Seems unfair to punish them because jobs are scarce and they’ve no one but themselves to support.

The President’s Fiscal Year 2013 budget again proposes a time-limit suspension. I’d like to think it will pass this time, but that’s more hope for change than I can muster.

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6 Responses to Childless Adults Face Food Stamp Cut-Off

  1. [...] (again) that it temporarily suspend the time limit that now jeopardizes food stamp benefits for many poor able-bodied adults without [...]

  2. Jo Ann says:

    There are so many “loop holes” and legal policy exemptions that there really isn’t anything for anyone to worry about. As a welfare worker it will affect those that don’t know the “loop holes”, but people that truly can’t find a job can do community service. That is a legal policy exemption that most people aren’t informed about. There are regulations to that, but it mainly just requires someone – anyone – signing off on it. That’s it really! There are others, but that’s the main one. Also, if you are a single parent with any child under the age of 6 you are automatically exempt from working. If you are a caretaker of a child even one day a month you are exempt even if the child isn’t yours. You just have to investigate the legal exemptions aka “loop holes”. So, there you have it!!

  3. Kathryn Baer says:

    As you say, community service can substitute for paid work. But that means an ABAWD has to find a nonprofit that has an appropriate volunteer slot and will accept him/her. This might be dicey for ABAWDs with disabilities and/or criminal records. Another barrier could be the paperwork the nonprofit would have to do.

    ABAWDs can also enroll in a job training program, but only one that state rules allow. I understand that slots are scarce.

    You say that caring for someone else’s child for an hour a month is sufficient for a time-limit exemption. Some state policies I’ve seen provide no exemption for caring for an unrelated person, even all day, every day.

    And it’s surely not true that “anyone” can sign off on an exploitation of a loophole.

    I’m not questioning your personal experience — only saying that I don’t think it can be generalized to ABADWs as a whole.

  4. […] I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can get benefits for only three weeks in any […]

  5. […] I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can ordinarily get SNAP benefits for only three […]

  6. […] we surely wouldn’t tolerate rigid time limits, unreasonable work requirements and demeaning entry-level procedures like drug tests, fingerprinting and the like — things […]

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