People hold empty bags in line for a food pantry in Austin, Texas. Keep Austin Fed/Flickr

On April 1, a federal provision tying food assistance to a work requirement will leave the unemployed poor in a lurch.

On April 1, at least half a million Americans will wake up no longer eligible for the food assistance benefits that have, for decades, been a crucial lifeline for the poor in a harsh economic landscape.

A clause in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act limited Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to three months in any given 36-month period for unemployed adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who are not working or enrolled in a job-training or community service program at least 20 hours per week.

During the economic downturn, many states instituted waivers to override these limits. But now that the employment rate has improved, the restrictions came back into effect in 40 states on January 1, 2016—meaning that some recipients will start feeling the impacts in April. The possibility of the time limit’s reimplementation began to trickle down from the federal government to the states around this time last year, but the exact areas and the precise number of people to be affected remained unclear until national and regional unemployment rates were confirmed around November of 2015.

Now, faced with the threat of millions of people struggling to make ends meet, state and local charities are shouldering the daunting task of picking up the slack.

The origins of the time limits

At the time the law was introduced, the American economy was prospering; job opportunities were on the rise. According to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, supporters of the time limit on SNAP benefits framed the provision as an impetus toward employment. The bill’s sponsors alluded to two means of skirting any potentially draconian implementations: one whereby states would ensure that those unable to find employment were enrolled in job-training programs; another which offered waivers to states sustaining unemployment rates higher than the national average. However, arguing for the provision on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, the bill’s sponsor—then-representative John Kasich—overstated the ease of securing job training. The text of the provision did not require states to offer people spots in work-training programs, or offer funding to create new ones.

But regions with high and sustained unemployment rates were able to waive the limits. At various points throughout the recession, every state but Delaware did so. NPR reports that:

In order to waive the time limit, states generally need to prove a region has an unemployment rate above 10 percent, a surplus of workers as acknowledged by the Department of Labor or unemployment rate 20 percent higher than the national average for two years in a row.

With jobs scarce across all sectors and demographics, it seemed nonsensical to impose a three-month time limit on receiving SNAP benefits while looking for a job. In areas with waivers in place, SNAP recipients collected between $150 and $170 per month as the nation pushed on through a deeply unfavorable labor market.

But unemployment rates have since fallen. More than half of the 40 states reinstating time limits had not imposed such restrictions since before the recession. The cutoffs will leave an unprecedented number of people without a safety net—save for already-strained local charities.

Who will be affected?

Those staring down the time limit are sometimes called ABAWDs—able-bodied adults without dependents. They are a diverse population, stratified racially and split on gender, with nearly 40 percent living in urban areas. What they have in common, crucially, is extreme poverty.

Any single-person household earning less than $12,000 per year is living below the poverty line. The gross average income of ABWADs on SNAP is dramatically lower—just 17 percent of that, or roughly $2,000 per year, notes the CBPP report.

(Courtesy of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

The three-month limit, says Pat Baker, a senior policy an analyst at the Massachussetts Law Reform Institute, functions as “a superficial, knee-jerk reaction that people who don’t have kids and who aren’t visibly disabled should be able to find work.”

A list of possible exemptions and necessary documentation. (Courtesy of Food Bank for New York City)

But the provision ignores myriad factors that make employment difficult for many people within this demographic. For one thing, there’s the issue of transportation: “How are you going to get yourself to a job if you don’t have a car or access to public transit?” Baker asks. Exemptions to the cutoff are granted on the basis of physical and mental health problems, among other reasons, such as chronic homelessness or participation in a rehabilitation program. (Some examples appear in the chart above.) But securing an exemption requires recognizing the possible exemptions in the first place, says Baker. Then, in order to continue to using SNAP benefits, the recipient has to embark on a complicated, document-laden process to prove one’s need.

“It’s death by a thousand paper cuts,” Baker says. She recalls working with people in her home state of Massachusetts when the time limit first came into effect in 1997. “The sheer amount of paperwork required to get the benefits restored was too much. People just gave up.”

Working against the labor market

While the economy has recovered since the recession, jobs are still hard to come by. The unemployment rate has dipped below 5 percent for the first time since February of 2008, but month to month, the number of jobs added sometimes misses the mark. And despite the efforts of lawmakers like Richard Blumenthal, a senator from Connecticut, to introduce a federal bill forbidding states to cut benefits on the basis of a work requirement without offering an individual a spot in a job-training program (like those originally promised by the provision’s authors), there is no uniform system in place to guarantee a way to fulfill the required 20-hour work minimum. Searching for a job doesn’t count.

The law does allow people to fulfill the work requirement through a combination of paid employment and volunteer work, but the latter, Baker says, is not as simple as just showing up. Many community-service based opportunities are already filled to capacity with those mandated to be there as part of their parole, and each new volunteer requires a costly background check—and employers may be unwilling to spend to bring on a new part-time volunteer. And on top of that, there’s the documentation: Each hour must be tallied and verified monthly before benefits can be collected.

Where states have stepped up

“It’s been very hard for states get out in front of this,” Baker says. “This is an extremely difficult federal rule to implement and protect people from.” Many states have not had to enforce the time limits in over a decade; this year, they are scrambling to figure out how to do so on very short notice.

This is the first year that New York, for instance, has not qualified for a statewide waiver. In response, “the state government really dug deep into the numbers to try to secure waivers for as many areas of the state as possible,” says Triada Stampas, the vice president for research and policy affairs at the Food Bank for New York City.

These efforts resulted in a strange patchwork map of New York City: Four out of the five boroughs qualify for a waiver, as do the four community boards of northern Manhattan, around Harlem. But the time limit will come into effect in the areas south of 110th Street on the West side and 96th street on the East. Employment rates are technically high in those districts, but still, there are more than 140,000 food-insecure people, Stampas says. Not all are ABAWDs who will be subjected to the time limit, she adds, but “it shows that the law doesn’t care about individual circumstances or need; it’s about where you live, and the prevailing economic circumstances of your neighborhood.”

(Courtesy of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities)

Some states in the Southeast, among them Arkansas, Florida, and Mississippi, have elected to forgo statewide waivers despite qualifying on the basis of high unemployment rates. The CBPP predicts that those states will be particularly hard-hit by the cutoffs. But in other states—among them New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon—government and charity organizations have been working hard in the face of what Stampas calls “the ticking clock” to raise awareness in communities that will be affected.

In Oregon, two counties, Washington and Multnomah, where Portland is seated, did not qualify for a waiver. Initially, the state predicted 30,000 people would lose SNAP benefits. (In 1998, that number was 4,500.) But now, through the sustained efforts of advocacy organizations to connect people with caseworkers to walk them through the exemption process, that number has gone down to around 10,000.

Even so, says Matt Newell-Ching, the public affairs director for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, “that’s 10,000 people who, come April 1, are going to be stranded.”

“Just go to the food bank”

The USDA has a response to those for whom the clock has run out, and who could not qualify for an exemption or come into compliance with the work requirement: “Contact your local food bank. They can help you find food to get through the tough times.”

Food banks, however, are still reeling from the effects of the 2013 cuts to federal spending on SNAP. “The incidence of food shortage at pantries has just been unacceptably high,” Stampas says. Research released by the Food Bank for NYC last fall indicates that over the course of a month, nearly half of all food banks surveyed ran out of the supplies needed to compile adequate pantry bags.

The 2013 “hunger cliff” was a result of benefit reductions; with up to one million people now standing to lose their benefits over the course of 2016, the need will be even greater. This holds true across the country. “We don’t know what to expect after April 1,” says Elizabeth Bradbury of the Second Harvest Food Bank Middle Tennessee in Nashville. “We’ve never gone through this before.” Newell-Ching echoes her sentiment. “Food banks here in Oregon are bracing themselves,” he says.

Food banks, Stampas adds, are designed as emergency measures, fueled by compassionate donations that will not go far enough to meet the need created by the abdication of the government. “We don’t have the resources to take on the continued erosion of our safety net,” Stampas says.

“We’re not viewing this as our hero moment,” Stampas says. Because fundamentally, there’s a larger issue at play, and it has to do with the denial of a basic survival necessity: food. Removing people’s access to food, Stampas says, helps no one. Starving people will not incentivize them to find work; it will only make an already arduous process borderline impossible.

“A policy like this doesn’t work when the economic conditions shift,” Stampas adds. “SNAP is an entitlement program: it is designed to provide resources to anyone who needs them.” The time-limit clause, she says, “is antithetical to the origins and intent of the program. And charity cannot take the place of policy.”

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