North Carolina joins a growing number of states that now require single, able-bodied, adults between 18-50 with no dependents to either work, volunteer or take classes, 20-hours-a-week in order to continue receiving food stamp (SNAP) benefits. Even if working forfeits other sources of income like disability, Social Security or unemployment pay.
This requirement will become effective January 1, 2017, in 23 mostly urban counties; and July 1, 2017, in the 77 remaining, primarily rural counties. While the larger North Carolina counties are finding innovative ways to meet the requirements of this new directive, their smaller, rural cousins have fewer resources and are unable to rise to the occasion. Mecklenburg county (Charlotte, North Carolina) is using this to pilot an employment and training program with community agencies to help put food stamp recipients “in a better position to seek employment,” said Men Tchaas Ari of the county’s Department of Social Services.
At first blush, working 20-hours a week to keep your SNAP benefits doesn’t sound overly burdensome. Especially when you consider that it affects only “single, able-bodied, adults without kids.” So what’s the problem? Surely the participants aren’t complaining, are they?
They are but not because they’re lazy but rather because:
1) Taking a job may jeopardize their Social Security disability designation or cause them to lose unemployment insurance benefits;
2) The approved jobs are not sufficient to meet the need nor are they adequately authorized training programs or volunteer activities;
3) Their community lacks the resources required to fulfill this stipulation. Mostly, rural areas.
The little gem of legislation was also tucked into an unrelated immigration bill that passed the legislature in September. Rick Glazier, a former state legislator pointed out that the sponsors of the bill probably knew the immigration provisions would distract from the much-needed attention of the food stamp changes.
“Those who ran it very much calculated where it was being put,” he said. “This is going to have even broader implications than the immigration provisions.”
Governor Paul LePage of Maine implemented a similar work requirement which resulted in over 8,000 of Maine’s most vulnerable citizens being removed from SNAP because there weren’t sufficient work, training or volunteer options.
For those waiting for a disability determination from Social Security, until it’s received, which may take anywhere from six months to five years, the individual is prohibited from working. If they do, they forfeit their disability. The same holds true for those receiving unemployment insurance benefits. The minute they accept a job, even at 20-hours a week to maintain your SNAP benefits, they’re no longer eligible to receive unemployment. Many of these individuals have no income and rely on SNAP for sustenance.
This law also does not indicate whether this qualifier will be modified to be fair to the state’s 77 rural counties. There’s just not enough appropriate placements for all who need them. It is, as Glazier said, as though we’re taking away the safety net from the poor.
Adding insult to injury, social service agencies are already overwhelmed. Even if there were enough volunteer positions to occupy everyone, the staff would be unable to adequately track volunteer hours resulting in high error rates and individuals denied SNAP benefits even though they may have worked or volunteered.
“The last time we had something like this in effect, there were very high error rates due to the complexity of tracking the requirements,” Doug Sea, an attorney from Legal Aid of North Carolina said. Sea estimated that the termination of benefits could affect tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of North Carolina’s 1.64 million SNAP recipients.