In this file photo from 2007, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) struggled to shop — and subsist — on $21 worth of groceries for a week. He was one of four congressmen taking the “Food Stamp Challenge” which means they cannot eat food costing more that $3 per day. (Katharine Frey/The Washington Post)

An estimated 1 million indigent Americans are expected to lose their food stamp benefits over the next couple years because they are unable to find a job or meet federally-mandated work requirements that are now starting to kick in again.

Falling unemployment rates are triggering a provision of the 1996 welfare reform act governing food stamps for able-bodied adults without dependent children. These recipients are required to work at least 20 hours a week for their benefits. They can also qualify for benefits through job training, schooling or community service — volunteerism in which a recipient essentially works off the cost of his or her monthly food stamp benefit.

Those who don’t meet the requirement will be cut off after three months of food stamps, and won’t be eligible again for another 33 months.

Roughly 1 million of these food stamp recipients simply will not be able to meet what amounts to a three-month deadline, says a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank.

It’s not about laziness

The problem doesn’t lie in the desire to work, the report says. It lies in finding and keeping work among a population that generally lacks formal education, transportation and stable housing, and often has criminal records and undiagnosed mental or physical disabilities. It lies in finding available job training and community service slots.

Most unemployed adults in this category are men, many over 40, most of them white with high school educations and gross incomes of about $2,200 a year, says the report. Their average food stamps benefit is about $150 to $200 per month.

“Cutting off food assistance to poor unemployed and underemployed workers doesn’t enable them to find employment or secure more hours of work,” the report says, calling the provision one of the harshest of the welfare reform act.

During the Great Recession, nearly every state asked for and received federal waivers for the work requirement – an in-case-of-economic-emergency measure also part of welfare reform. By 2016, the Center on Budget predicts, only a few states will qualify – and some that do will choose not to apply.

Who counts as ‘able-bodied’?

That’s Ohio’s story. In September 2013, its governor, Republican John Kasich, decided that even though the state could get a waiver, the job market had sufficiently improved in 72 of the state’s 88 counties. It was time to reinstate the work requirement, he said. The clock started ticking for roughly 134,000 people.

Kasich helped author the work requirement in the welfare reform act during his tenure in Congress.

“Bear in mind, these are able-minded adults who are not raising children,” Rob Nichols, a spokesman for the governor, said. “The governor believes in the work requirement. This is a sign of an economic turnaround. This is good news.”

The state’s unemployment rate, once in the low double-digits, hit 5 percent in November.

No one is going to argue against the notion that healthy, able-bodied adults who can work, should — especially if they are receiving taxpayer-funded benefits, said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. “We believe in the value of work,” she said.

But if Ohio is a predictor of things to come, she said, states – and, especially nonprofits and faith-based organizations upon whose doorsteps much of the fallout will land – better start getting ready now.

“This ain’t gonna be easy,” Hamler-Fugitt said. “All of the folks with preconceived notions about who able-bodied recipients are — and I don’t care where you stand on the political spectrum — put those notions on the shelf because Ozzie and Harriet don’t live here anymore.”

The association, which is working with the Franklin County Department of Jobs & Family Services, began conducting assessments of the estimated 15,000 food stamp recipients in the county who might be subject to the new requirements.

Between December 2013 and September 2014, the association screened more than 3,000 recipients. It found 30 percent never completed high school and had no GED. Thirty four percent were convicted felons. Fewer than four in 10 had valid driver’s licenses. Ten percent said they were already working, though only 127 said they worked more than 20 hours a week, and few were working on a consistent basis.

The barriers to employment

Among the 70 percent who had graduated from high school or completed a GED, many “are marginally or functionally illiterate, reading and writing at the fourth-grade level,” Hamler-Fugitt said. And, at least one-third of the presumed “able-bodied” had mental or physical disabilities.

Without their food stamps allotment, “they rely on family and friends. Their physical and mental health deteriorates. They cycle back into the criminal justice system. Homeless shelters fill. Our food pantries are already overwhelmed. I don’t know how else to put this. You eat or you die,” she said.

Nichols said the governor is also aware of the more stubborn barriers and “has gone through extraordinary means to help those living in shadow,” including supporting the state’s Medicaid expansion and measures to help nonviolent felons get back into the workforce.

Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said an assumption of the work requirement provision is that those who can’t find work or lack the necessary job skills can easily move into job training. They can’t, he said. Most states don’t have nearly the capacity needed, and available slots tend to go to parents with young children. Only five states, he said, have committed to providing job training or workfare slots to those adults without children who are running up against the three-month clock.

One solution Congress could adopt is to allow the job search itself to be counted as a work requirement, which is the case with other social welfare programs, Bolen said. It could also extend the three-month time limit.

As of September 2014, nearly a year after Ohio’s reinstated work policy went into effect, the food stamp rolls have dropped by almost 100,000 to slightly more than 1.7 million people, said Hamler-Fugitt, But, she added, any taxpayer who looks at the decline and equates it to cost savings isn’t really looking that hard.