As many as 1 million Americans will stop receiving food stamps this year, the consequence of a controversial work mandate that took effect this week in 21 states as the economy improves.
The revival of the mandate, which was hotly debated when adopted in the 1990s, is reigniting a discussion among policymakers and advocates for the poor about the fairness and wisdom of the social safety net in the new U.S. economy.
The requirement, which generally stipulates that participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) who do not have children or a disability must find a job within three months of receiving the benefit and work an average of 20 hours a week, was suspended in most states following the mortgage crisis amid widespread unemployment. Now, as jobs have returned, the work mandate was automatically reinstated in many states at the beginning of this year, and the three-month allowance for finding a job ended April 1.
Even where unemployment remains relatively high, some governors have brought back the requirement, saying it encourages people to rejoin the workforce.
The nearly two dozen states where the rules are changing this week include Maryland, New York and Florida. Seventeen other states have reinstated the work requirement in the past couple of years.
Federal officials say it is impossible to know precisely how many people will be affected, but the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning policy group in Washington, has estimated that it could be tens of thousands this month and as many as 1 million this year.
Critics say the 20-year-old mandate is outdated in the new economy, in which steady manufacturing jobs are harder to come by and employers are imposing erratic schedules on low-wage workers. Falling unemployment rates can mask the reality for the working poor who cycle in and out of unemployment, critics say, with the fluctuating hours and irregular paychecks. "We've seen a long-term trend toward more precarious job conditions for low-skilled workers," said Shawn Fremstad, a lawyer at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. "Even if you get a job, you're not guaranteed more than 20 hours a week."
For the federal work requirement to be waived, a jurisdiction must have an unemployment rate above 10 percent, a rate 20 percent higher than the national average, or the local labor market must qualify as weak by other measures. But governors can reinstate the mandate even if the state economy meets that criteria, as Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (R) did this year. He chose not to extend the work-mandate waiver, though the state's unemployment rate is 6.5 percent, among the worst in the country. "We want people to go to work in Mississippi," Bryant said in a statement. "We want these individuals to get a good job and live the American dream, not just be dependent on the federal government."
Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) made a similar decision in 2013. Of the 13,000 Kansans who became ineligible for food stamps after that decision, at least 64 percent found some work over the next year and a half, according to an analysis of state data by the Foundation for Government Accountability, a right-leaning think tank. Their average income increased from about $4,600 a year, including the food stamps, to about $5,600 a year.
But not all are able to find work. Among those affected is Danny Lamb, a 41-year-old former factory worker in Pittsburg, Kan., who said he has been spending his days filling out employment applications for several weeks. He has no degree and two lame knees, from injuries he suffered playing linebacker on his high school football team, that restrict the kind of work he can do.
Recently, though, Lamb was deemed , and since his 8-year-old son lives with the boy's mother, Lamb legally has no dependents.
No employers have shown any interest in him.
"It's a messed-up situation. Here you got people who really do depend on a little bit of assistance through the state," Lamb said. "It seems like they really don't care if somebody goes hungry or whatever."
The work mandate is the product of a bipartisan compromise in 1996, when Republicans in Congress and President Bill Clinton worked together on an overhaul of the country's welfare system.
Clinton signed the legislation despite his objections to several specific provisions, including the one requiring able-bodied adults to work. In a statement accompanying his signature on the bill, Clinton said that it "fails to provide Food Stamp support to childless adults who want to work, but cannot find a job or are not given the opportunity to participate in a work program."
Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who helped author the work requirement as a congressman in 1996, is among the conservative politicians arguing that able-bodied adults should not receive SNAP benefits if they are not working. At the end of 2013, Kasich decided not to request an extension of the statewide waiver of the work mandate, enforcing the rule in all but the most economically depressed, rural counties in Ohio.
A spokesman for Kasich, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said the reinstatement of the requirement would prod people to seek work in the improving economy.
"These are, again, adults - no dependents, physically and mentally capable of working," Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Kasich's presidential campaign, said in a recent interview. "Just as much as we believe in the social safety net, we also believe it's a sin not to help oneself."
Opponents of the rule also argue that work, especially on the margins of the economy, has become more unstable since the mandate was first adopted.
The number of people who are involuntarily working part time has also increased, from roughly 4.3 million in 1996 to 6 million today.
A recent national survey found that part-time workers' hours typically fluctuate from week to week. Among those who said they usually worked between 20 and 24 hours weekly, a quarter of respondents said they had worked as many as 30 and another quarter said they had worked as few as 10.
Roughly 4 in 10 workers who are paid hourly are informed of their schedules less than a week in advance.
Finding those jobs often takes several months. The average amount of time unemployed Americans spend looking for work has declined from its apex in 2011 but is still more than six months, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics -
more than twice as long as the time allowed in the work requirement.
"Making people hungrier isn't going to make them find work faster," said Rebecca Vallas, managing director of the Poverty
to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. "One of the most helpful things for
someone looking for work is helping them not worry about putting food on the table."
In general, able-bodied adults rely on food stamps only for short periods during spells of unemployment. Three-quarters work in the year before or the year after they receive food stamps, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The number of food-stamp recipients without children in the household or without a disability increased from 1.7 million in 2007 to 4.9 million in 2013 as the economy soured and the Obama administration waived the rule throughout most of the country.
In 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, the number decreased modestly to 4.7 million - partly an indicator of an improving labor market and partly a result of the reinstatement of the work mandate in a few states.
"One of the solutions the government has put out there is telling people to go to their local food bank, but we don't have the resources to step in in place of the government," said Margarette Purvis, president of the Food Bank for New York City.
In New York state, where the cuts are expected to be among the largest, as many as 45,000 people were expected to become ineligible to receive food stamps on Friday, according to the food-bank group. In Manhattan alone, as many as 3,000 low-income adults were expected to find themselves without a food safety net as the month began.
Those 45,000 people would have received an equivalent of about 26 million meals over the course of the year, according to the estimates by the charity organization. For Purvis, the fear is not only that many of them will not manage to find work - it's that they won't be able to eat, either.
"This whole thing is not about whether or not they need food," she said. "That's a big problem. These people desperately need the help."
This story has been updated.
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