Childless Adults Face Food Stamp Cut-Off

February 27, 2012

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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