WASHINGTON -- If you're a working-age person without a job, a disability or a kid, then soon you're not going to have access to food stamps, either. In another sign of eroding sympathy for the jobless amid a tepid economic recovery, states are restricting benefits for the unencumbered unemployed. Indiana is next.
Earlier this year, the Hoosier State notified roughly 50,000 of the state's 836,000 food stamp recipients that they would be getting the boot come October unless they met work requirements set by the 1996 federal welfare reform law. That Gingrichian measure requires childless adults without disabilities to work 20 hours a week in order to qualify for more than three months of food stamp benefits.
Federal regulations let states waive that rule in times of high unemployment, and since 2009 almost every state has done so. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamp benefits -- more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- notified states this year that they would soon lose those waivers thanks to falling unemployment rates.
Ending the waivers would kick about a million people off food stamps by the end of next year, according to a January estimate by Ed Bolen, a policy expert with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. He said in an interview this week that Indiana is being more aggressive about the time limit than it needs to be, since states can still apply for limited waivers in areas of high unemployment.
"Indiana is not taking an approach that other states are taking, which is to keep the waiver in parts of the state that are hard hit," Bolen said.
But Jim Gavin, a spokesman for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, said that forgoing waivers altogether is better policy.
"We view the establishment of the time limits as an opportunity to help improve the skills of Hoosiers in all parts of the state and advance their prospects for meaningful employment," Gavin said, "while at the same time establishing a pool of better prepared candidates for the Indiana workforce."
Only about 10 percent of the 47 million SNAP recipients nationally were able-bodied adults without dependents in 2013, according to the most recent USDA data. The overall number of recipients has declined slightly since then to roughly 45 million.
The three-month limit for those not working has also been reinstated this year in Wisconsin and Maine, and soon will in New Mexico. Kansas reimposed it in 2013. Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez (R) urged other states to follow suit in a Sunday op-ed in The Washington Times.
"We encourage governors not to renew work waivers for able-bodied adults without dependent children who are on food assistance and, instead, help lift millions off of welfare and transition them to meaningful jobs as a result," the governors wrote, citing circumstantial evidence that reimposing the time limit boosted employment in some states.
Food stamp recipients can fulfill the work requirement by finding a job or by participating in activities like job training, though Bolen said most states don't offer programs that would guarantee people those other options if they can't find a job.
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