Taking Away Their Food, for Thought

Early this January, local governments restored a federal work requirement for food some stamp recipients in 23 mostly urban counties across North Carolina, including Wake County.

State senators that support the change say the work requirement will incentivize the unemployed beneficiaries to find work or to enroll in some sort of higher education or training program to improve their job skills. While this may be true, they forget one thing: You can’t always get what you want.

Many of NC’s poorest will lose their food aid because they couldn’t find jobs or training programs or simply because they didn’t know the change took effect. The change could affect over 100,000 North Carolinians living around the poverty line [1]. Add to their perils the newly increased requirements for unemployment benefits for which the legislature voted in September. If state leaders do not act, other 77 counties may push more of the state’s poorest people into hardship by restoring the work requirement later this year.

Food stamps are a form of food subsidy to provide poor people with adequate quantity of food. In the US, food stamps are provided under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) of the US Department of Agriculture.  The program is state-supervised and county-administered.

Each month, SNAP food stamp dollars are directly deposited into a beneficiary household’s special debit card account, the Electronic Benefit Transfer card account. Households can use their EBT to pay for most food items found at supermarkets, convenience stores, and even some farmers’ markets.

SNAP supplies roughly 46.5 million Americans with food assistance that roughly equates to an average of $125.35 per person per month.

The amount of SNAP benefits received by household depends on many factors. There are income requirements for SNAP, as well as specific requirements different household sizes, immigrants, elderly persons and persons with disabilities. In North Carolina, eligibility for this benefit program is determined by residency status and household income.

The work requirement, which had been suspended since 2008 when the recession hit and unemployment rose, demands childless, abled adult program beneficiaries to document either work, education, or volunteer activities for at least 20 hours a week in order to receive food stamps.

County social services are working to make sure recipients learn about the requirements and find opportunities to meet them. However, even if unemployed recipients of food aid look for work and volunteer opportunities, or put the effort into looking for training programs, it doesn’t mean they will find them or that they will be hired or accepted.

For example, non-profits rarely give 20-hour-a-week slots, and workforce training programs fill quickly. In addition, distances in NC may be a limiting factor for those contemplating to drive to a community college [1].

Census data on how many food stamp recipients already have jobs is murky and difficult to interpret. According to 2012 data, around 75 percent of SNAP households had a t least one wage earner. But that gives little information to infer anything about individuals [2]. According to a Policy Analyst from the Budget and Tax Center, the average childless, non-disabled adult who receives food stamps in NC has an annual income of $2,200 and received an average of $150 to $200 in food assistance per month [3]. Clearly, this group is vulnerable. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, very few recipients of food stamps in NC quality for other forms of assistance and live without much of a safety net [4]. Therefore, for them, the loss of food assistance could become the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

The change in requirements can be detrimental for an already vulnerable social group. To the recipients’ relieve, at least they will still be eligible for at least three months of benefits without meeting the work requirement. That gives social activist groups until March to prepare for unusual emergency food demands. For us, the conscious students, it means we have enough time and budget to set aside an additional 30 packs of ramen noodles to send the local food bank.

Sources:

[1] http://www.newsobserver.com/news/politics-government/state-politics/article53894400.html

[2] http://www.wral.com/q-a-nc-food-stamp-growth/13405347/

[3] http://www.ncjustice.org/sites/default/files/BTC%20Policy%20Basic–SNAP%20Time%20Limit_0.pdf

[4] Ed Bolen. “Approximately 1 Million Unemployed Childless Adults Will Lose SNAP Benefits in 2016 as State Waivers Expire.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. January 2015. Data reflect the national profile. Available here: http://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/approximately-1-million-unemployed-childless-adults-will-lose-snap-benefits

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