N.C. asks feds to waive work requirements for able-bodied adults on food stamps; other GOP-led states expect work

USDA SNAP food stampsRALEIGH – While some states with Republican governors are reinstating work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults who receive food stamps, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services says it has already asked the federal government to continue to waive those requirements for parts of the state. According to the state agency, 116,808 able-bodied adults without dependents receive benefits in North Carolina through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, as food stamps are officially known.

In July 2014, Maine reinstated the three-month limit for how long able-bodied, childless adults could remain on food stamps without working, volunteering or attending a vocational training program. The result was dramatic, cutting the number of those recipients from approximately 12,000 to 2,500, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. A handful of other states, most led by Republican governors, have also decided to require food stamp recipients to work after they receive three months of benefits through the program.

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)

Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R)

Under longstanding SNAP program rules, adults younger than 50 who are not disabled, pregnant, or caring for children or other dependents are limited to three months of SNAP benefits in a 3-year period if they are not working, participating in a work program for 20 hours or more each week, or in a workfare program. Able-bodied, childless adults receiving food stamps in North Carolina make up a little more than 7 percent of the 1.6 million total beneficiaries of the program in the state, according to July 2015 data provided by N.C. DHHS.

North Carolina, along with 45 other states, currently has a waiver of work requirements from the Obama administration for Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABA WDs), as the USDA categorizes them. According to a USDA memorandum from 2012, federal regulations allow a state to seek a waiver if it meets the U.S. Department of Labor’s requirements for extended unemployment benefits.

But in a May memo, Lizbeth Silbermann, a division director at the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, told regional SNAP directors that the statewide waivers may soon come to an end for many states when the federal fiscal year ends Sept 30. “When these waivers expire, states will be required to immediately re-establish the time limit for all ABA WDs subject to the time limit,” Silbermann wrote.

The end of the statewide waivers does not mean that the three-month limit on food stamps will return, since states can still ask for localized waivers for the SNAP program, through which the federal government funds all benefits and half of the administrative costs. In 23 North Carolina counties, work requirements will come back into effect. But in July, N.C. DHHS asked USDA for a waiver to cover the 77 North Carolina counties with elevated unemployment rates, according to N.C. DHHS spokeswoman Alexandra Lefebvre.

While Maine Gov. Paul LePage has been blasted in national liberal publications for reinstating the work requirements, his welfare reform proposals have had bipartisan support in Maine, although Democrats there have generally not wanted to go as far as he and his Republican allies have. Conservative-leaning groups, meanwhile, have lauded LePage’s reforms.

“A work requirement can serve to ensure that assistance is going to those who truly need it,” said Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation. Sheffield says that in Maine, participation in the program has dropped significantly even though able-bodied adults without dependents are able to fulfill the requirement with as little as six hours of community service per week.

Sheffield also says that in general, work requirements can lead to higher employment, and points to requirements that were part of overall welfare reform passed with bipartisan support in 1996.

“Within about five years, we saw welfare rolls drop by about 50 percent. We saw employment among low-income individuals increase and child poverty decline,” said Sheffield. Data on what has happened to the former SNAP recipients in Maine is not currently available, she said.

Current data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that the number of North Carolinians receiving food stamps surged 10.8 percent from May 2014 to May 2015, but N.C. DHHS says that the apparent surge is a calculation error by USDA. According to DHHS, the actual change for North Carolina was a decrease of about 1 percent, which is close to the reported national decrease of 1.6 percent.

A decrease of 1 percent would still put North Carolina somewhat at odds with the trends in neighboring states. Georgia, Virginia, South Carolina and Tennessee saw their numbers of recipients drop by 3.4 percent, 6.8 percent, 3.0 percent and 7.7 percent, respectively, for the year ended May 2015.