REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

New data from the USDA shows an extreme drop-off in SNAP participation since a federal work requirement came into effect in April.

In April, a safety net unraveled for hundreds of thousands of Americans when a federal provision linking food assistance to a work requirement eliminated many people’s access to supplemental nutrition assistance (SNAP) benefits.

Since the provision came into effect on April 1, SNAP participation rates have dramatically decreased. New data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture show that, in April alone, SNAP participation declined by 773,000 people—the largest single-month drop, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, since temporary disaster relief benefits ended for Hurricane Katrina victims in 2005.  

Broadly speaking, dwindling SNAP participation denotes good things for the economy: during the height of the recession, the number of people receiving food stamp benefits rose drastically, peaking in December 2012 at 47.8 million. Participation rates have since fallen by 4.2 million as the job market regained its footing; caseloads are now at their lowest since 2010.

But April’s sharp decline was due, in part, to a more problematic side effect of the economic upturn. During times of high and sustained unemployment, states can apply for a waiver to override the work requirement attached to SNAP. Those hold that unemployed adults between the ages of 18 and 49—without dependents or disabilities—must be limited to only three months of benefits within a 36-month period, unless they find work or are enrolled in a job-training or community service program for at least 20 hours a week. During the recession, most states applied for and were granted waivers; those in need received monthly food stipends regardless of employment status.

But by January of this year, the overall employment rate in 40 states had improved to the extent that they no longer qualified for a waiver, and the three-month time limit came back into effect on April 1. Additionally, as I previously reported, several states still eligible for a waiver on the basis of low employment—like Arkansas and Mississippi—elected to forgo one.

Before the April 1 cutoff date, CBPP estimated that around 500,000 Americans would lose their benefits due to the re-emergence of this policy. The recent data from the USDA, says the CBPP senior analyst Ed Bolen, confirms the impact of the restriction: SNAP participation declined 2.8 percent in those states newly opposing time limits, as opposed to .8 percent in those states with waivers still in place. The data also throw into relief some troubling fall-outs.  

Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

For many, work is still hard to come by

One concern, Bolen says, is that certain states, in a rush to prove the strength of the job market in a year of political upheaval, overlooked the more fraught reality faced by members of their populations. Take Louisiana. Under the former governor and Republican presidential candidate Bobby Jindal, the state declined a work-requirement waiver last year, despite having previously sought them during his tenure, The Advocate reported. However, upon taking office on January 11, Jindal’s successor, John Bel Edwards, reapplied for and was granted a waiver. Due to high unemployment and low wages, SNAP participation in Louisiana is actually increasing, in opposition to the national trend. While Jindal overlooked that, Edwards’ more measured approach—which includes a revamped workforce training program that launched July 1—acknowledges that an upward national trend is no cause to disregard the needs of a specific population.

Those affected by the waiver roll-backs are often referred to as “able-bodied adults without dependents,” or ABAWDs. The moniker is a misnomer that perpetuates the mentality that the only barrier to work for these people is a lack of motivation, says Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. Hamler-Fugitt says that the name masks the fact that, at least in Ohio, 30.8 percent people in this category suffer from undiagnosed mental or physical impairments, and 24.4 percent have children but no custody. Still more face other barriers to employment, like the 35.3 percent who report a past felony conviction.

Alternative sources of assistance are overtaxed

Ohio lost its waiver in October 2013, and since then, Hamler-Fugitt’s organization has been working to take a thorough look at those affected to best understand how to administer other forms of assistance. To date, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks, in partnership with the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services, has assessed over 5,000 individuals of the approximately 172,000 who were have been removed from SNAP in the state, Hamler-Fugitt says.

“This is a mean-spirited public policy,” Hamler-Fugitt says. “We’re essentially saying to folks, many of whom cannot work or cannot function, that you’re on your own.”

In the absence of federal assistance, people in waiver-less states across the country have been turning to food banks, like Hamler-Fugitt’s organization in Ohio. “Our networks are completely overwhelmed,” she says. The re-imposition of the time limit, she says, has foisted “a serious unfunded mandate onto our system.”

Need has escalated in Ohio to the extent that a group of charity organizations in Richland County have come together to feed people in an open soup kitchen in the town square, Hamler-Fugitt says. The number of people in line increases each day.

A number of smaller food pantries in St. Louis, Missouri—a state whose time limit went back into effect on April 1—report more picked-over shelves after 27,000 Missourians lost their benefits, according to St. Louis Public Radio.

There, people like 48-year-old Catherine Sales are reeling after losing their monthly stipend of $189. Sales is looking for work, St. Louis Public Radio reported, which should entitle her to continue receiving benefits, but she’s been too daunted by the sudden cut-off to complete the necessary paperwork.

In Mississippi, a state that qualified for a waiver but elected not to apply for one, the 82,000 affected residents are similarly struggling to come into compliance with the work requirement, says Matthew Williams, a policy associate at the Mississippi Center for Justice. Only two counties in the state produce enough job openings to employ those affected by the work requirement, Williams adds, and Governor Phil Bryant’s Mandatory Employment & Training program will only create about 3,600 additional placements per month—nowhere near adequate to fulfill the need created by the absent waiver.

Such logistical shortcomings fail those affected; Hamler-Fugitt says that there is an undeniable need for state and federal programs to step up and fill in these gaps to assistance. “The USDA should require that before anyone’s cut off, they’re thoroughly assessed to ensure we understand if they have a disability, and are given the treatment necessary,” she says. “It’s also imperative that all employment training resources available at the federal, state, and local levels are prioritized for this population.”

In the meantime, Hamler-Fugitt says, non-profit and faith-based food providers must be shored up; foundation and corporate grants, alongside individual contributions, provide the bulk of support for these organizations.

Failing to adequately understand and address the needs of what Hamler-Fugitt calls “our most vulnerable population” shows a blindness on the part of state governments. “Just because you decide to cut people off or disenroll them in basic-needs benefits, they don’t leave our communities,” she says. “They stay, and they deteriorate.”

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