New Hunger Crisis Looms

January 15, 2015

Approximately 1 million low-income — mostly very poor — people may soon have little or nothing to eat, except what charitable organizations can provide. This isn’t one of those crises we read about in some far-off country devastated by drought, locusts or internal warfare. It’s right here in the U.S. and the result of policy choices.

The 1 million or so people will lose their SNAP (food stamp) benefits in 2016. They’ve done nothing wrong, except to be between the ages of 18 and 50 and to have neither a certified disability that prevents them from working nor a family member who depends on them for care.

As I’ve written before, these so-called able-bodied adults without dependents are generally limited to three months of SNAP benefits within any three-year period unless they’re working at least half time or participating in a job training or workfare program, i.e., an arrangement whereby they work, usually for a public agency, in exchange for their benefits.

The law that sets this limit allows state to request a waiver, either for the state as a whole or for specific areas, when the unemployment rate is extraordinarily high.

The Recovery Act temporarily suspended the time limit nationwide through September 2010. Most states and the District of Columbia asked for and got waivers after that. But the waivers are already disappearing — in some cases, because Republican governors chose not to ask for them.

“We should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout,” says Maine Governor LePage, voicing what one suspects is a common view among his counterparts.

Now unemployment rates in most parts of the country are dropping to the point where states will have, at most, waivers for some deeply depressed areas, even if they’re not hostile to the concept.

This doesn’t mean that the ABAWDs can find jobs if they just try hard enough, however. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports, about half have only a high school diploma or the equivalent — and a quarter have neither.

They may still land low-paying service sector jobs. But these won’t necessarily ensure 20 hours a week on a regular basis.

Some will have a hard time getting any job at all. In a county in Ohio that lost its waiver because Governor John Kasich decided to narrowly target his request, more than 34% of ABAWDs has a criminal record — a high barrier to employment, as we know.

The problem goes well beyond dim job prospects because the end of a waiver doesn’t mean that ABAWDs can continue receiving SNAP benefits if they comply with the alternative work requirements.

In fact, as CBPP explains, it’s misleading to call the job training/workfare alternatives work requirements because they’re quite different from the work requirements we’re familiar with in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

Though parents in TANF are generally required to participate in a work preparation program if they’re not actually working, they’re not penalized with a benefits loss if there’s no space for them in an appropriate program. Nor are they penalized if they’re actively looking for a job, but haven’t yet found one.

By contrast, states have no obligation to ensure that at-risk ABAWDs can get into a work preparation or workfare program. They generally don’t, CBPP reports. This is in part because SNAP education and training funds fall short of the need. But it’s also because states tend to give preference to other SNAP recipients, e.g., parents with dependent children.

As if that weren’t enough, the law that sets the time limit doesn’t recognize job searches as a qualifying activity. So there’s really nothing that unemployed (and underemployed) ABAWDs can do to retain the generally modest, but crucial SNAP benefits they’ve gotten.

Unimaginable that the majority who lose their benefits can scrape up the money to feed themselves, as CBPP’s brief clearly shows. Their gross incomes average 19% of the federal poverty line — about $2,217 for a single person this year.

About 82% live in households with total incomes below half the FPL — less than $11,925 per year for a four-person household. How will people as poor as this make up for the loss of nutrition assistance averaging $150-$200 a month?

Congress could extend a lifeline to ABAWDs. It could, for example, change the so-called work requirement so that states would have to offer either a job or a slot in a job training or workfare program.

It could include job searches as qualifying work activities. It could at least stretch the time limit to six months — the average amount of time childless adults received SNAP benefits before they were time-limited.

It could increase federal funding for the basic SNAP employment and training grants — currently just $90 million a year.

Is this Congress going to do any of these things? A rhetorical question. So, CBPP says, states should give community groups and service providers advance warning.

Food banks and the programs they help supply surely should know that they’re likely to face even more — and more frequent — requests for free groceries and/or meals. CBPP cites other providers likely to face increased needs for services — or in the case of healthcare clinics, effects on patients they’re already serving.

Advance warning is, of course, better than surprise. But what the nonprofits can do with the heads-up is a question mark. It’s not as if they’ve stayed silent on their needs for private donations, as many of us with email accounts can testify.

Those of us with the wherewithal can hearken such requests. But as Bread for the World’s president said some time ago, “[W]e cannot ‘food-bank’ our way out of hunger…. [W]e need to change the politics.”

The impending plight of ABAWDs cries out for that. But who in the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill is listening?

 


No Kids, No Food Stamps for Jobless Workers in New House GOP SNAP Plan

August 12, 2013

Perhaps you’ve seen the news by now. House Majority Leader Eric Cantor is masterminding a new SNAP (food stamp) proposal that’s supposed to cut the program by around $40 billion over the next 10 years. This is nearly twice as much as the version in the Farm Bill that went down to defeat in mid-June.

The Cantor version has everything that was in that, including amendments added before the final vote.

One of them, widely thought to have sealed the Farm Bill’s fate, established a new, deceptively-characterized work requirement option for states that was actually an incentive for them to end benefits for as many participants as possible.

Now Cantor wants to insert another work requirement provision that he reportedly tried to get into the Farm Bill from the outset. This one would eliminate waivers from a work requirement that’s been part of SNAP since Congress ended welfare as we knew it.

As I’ve written before, able-bodied adults without dependents can ordinarily get SNAP benefits for only three months in any three-year period unless they’re working 20 hours a week or participating, for the same amount of time, in an education and training or a workfare program, i.e., working for no pay in exchange for their benefits.

But for (I hope) obvious reasons, states can get waivers from the ABAWD requirements for areas where the unemployment rate is extraordinarily high or the U.S. Department of Agriculture determines there are “insufficient jobs” available.

All but a few states and the District of Columbia still have such waivers for at least some of their jurisdictions, according to the latest (now outdated) notice posted by USDA.

Cantor and the colleagues he’s working with apparently want to blow away the waiver option — whether states have E&T and/or workfare slots for affected ABAWDs or not.

A memo the Congressional Research Service prepared for Cantor indicates that about 3.9 million SNAP recipients might be affected, though CRS couldn’t come up with a hard number.

This is a small fraction of all recipients — 9.7% in the (also now outdated) CRS estimates. But they’re among the poorest, according to a very angry response by Bob Greenstein, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Their average income, he says, is just 22% of the federal poverty line — about $2,528 a year if they’re single, $3,412 if they’re part of a two-member household.

And because of our propensity to disadvantage the childless, they’re ineligible for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program — a source of some, though hardly enough cash assistance. Also, Greenstein adds, for cash assistance from state and local programs.

One of the drafters, Congressman Marlin Stutzman, says, “Most people would agree that if you are an able bodied adult without any kids, you should find your way off food stamps.”

But that’s not what we’re looking at here. States have no obligation to provide ABAWDs with education, training or on-the-job work experience. Only a few do — and only five to all who’d otherwise lose their benefits.

And these folks may be trying as hard as they can to find their way off food stamps. The jobs just aren’t there.

At this point, there are still three job seekers for every job available. And the ABAWDs, by and large, could qualify for only those on the low-skill end, Greenstein says.

Now, in one sense, all this seems a not-to-worry. Congressman Frank Lucas, the obviously unhappy chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, remarks on the $16.5 billion or so gap between the SNAP cut in the Senate Farm Bill and the cuts the House rejected.

He hopes for “guidance on high” — apparently referring to the White House, though a House-Senate compromise on a new Farm Bill may take higher guidance than that.

What is a to-worry is that we’re heading toward an even more complex crisis than the imminent end of spending authority for a vast number of government programs, plus the need to keep the government from defaulting on its debts.

Though SNAP won’t expire, other parts of the current Farm Bill will. And there are good reasons to believe the Senate may not pass another one-year extension.

Good reasons to believe the House won’t either — unless Speaker John Boehner allows a vote on a bill that his caucus won’t support.

Beyond this, we’re seeing another manifestation of the right-wing Republicans’ effort to gut safety net programs under the guise of redressing debilitating — and deficit-exploding — dependency.

And doing this by fostering the notion that poor people don’t want to work — but would if they got hungry enough.

Our safety net programs are far from perfect. Yet the best we can hope for is to preserve the status quo until Republicans and Democrats again agree that we, through our government, must see to the well-being of the less fortunate among us.

At this point, they can’t even agree on what the Bible teaches.


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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