A controversial work mandate that took effect in 21 states last month has snatched food stamps away from as many as 1 million Americans. The mandate, which was adopted in the 1990s, has reignited arguments among lawmakers about the wisdom and fairness of the social safety net in the US economy.
The mandate requires SNAP enrollees without children or a disability to find a new job within 3 months of receiving the benefit. This requirement was suspended following the mortgage crisis of 2008 but has been reinstated admit the country’s improving economy.
In many states, the 3-month allowance for finding and securing a new job ended on April 1st. Seventeen other states reinstated the rule in recent years. States experiencing the new rule in April include Florida, New York, Maryland, and Arizona.
State governors say the mandate encourages people to join the workforce, but critics argue the rule is outdated in a society in which steady jobs are hard to find. “We’ve seen a long-term trend toward more precarious job conditions for low-skilled workers,” says lawyer Shawn Fremstad. “Even if you get a job, you’re not guaranteed more than 20 hours a week.” Falling unemployment rates can mask the troubles faced by the working poor.
Jurisdictions can evade the mandate if they reach a certain unemployment rate or if the local labor market qualifies as “weak” by certain standards. But state governors still have the option to reinstate the mandate even if this disappointing criterion is met.
Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant chose not to extend the work-mandate waiver even though his state’s unemployment rate is among the worst in the country. “We want people to go to work in Mississippi,” said Republican Governor Phil Bryant. “We want these individuals to get a good job and live the American dream, not just be dependent on the federal government.”
As it turns out, forcing people to get a job works. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback made a similar decision 3 years ago. Of the 13,000 SNAP enrollees who lost benefits after his decision, more than 60% had found a job over the next 18 months. These individuals saw an average increase in yearly income from $4,600 to $5,600 (incl. food stamps).
Ohio Governor and Republican Presidential candidate John Kasich helped pen the work requirement as a congressman back in 1996. He rightly argues that able-bodied adults should not receive food stamp benefits if they are not working. “These are, again, adults – no dependents, physically and mentally capable of working,” said Kasich spokesperson Rob Nichols. “Just as much as we believe in the social safety net, we also believe it’s a sin not to help oneself.”
On the flip side are people like Danny Lamb, a 41-year-old former factory employee living in Pittsburg, Kansas. He’s been filling out job applications for weeks, but companies aren’t interested in a man with two lame knees. “It’s a messed up situation. Here you got people who really do depend on a little bit of assistance through the state,” he said. “It seems like they really don’t care if somebody goes hungry or whatever.”
Studies show the kind of part-time jobs available to individuals like Lamb have unpredictable hours. Roughly 40% of these workers are informed of their schedules less than 7 days in advance.
On top of that, finding such a job takes an average of 6 months (twice the mandate’s allowance). “Making people hungrier isn’t going to make them find work faster,” argues Rebecca Vallas of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the left-leaning Center for American Progress. “One of the most helpful things for someone looking for work is helping them not worry about putting food on the table.”
Ideally, able-bodied adults should rely on SNAP benefits only for short periods of time between jobs. But the number of SNAP recipients without kids or a disability shot up from 1.7 million in 2007 to 4.9 million in 2013 as the housing market crashed and the Obama Administration waived the rule throughout most of the nation.
In 2014 that number had dropped to 4.7 million – partly due to an improving economy and party a result of the work mandate being reinstated in several states.
An estimated 45,000 New Yorkers lost their food stamp benefits last month – 3,000 in Manhattan alone. These individuals would have received roughly 26 million meals over the course of one year.
“This whole thing is not about whether or not they need food,” says President Margarette Purvis of the New York City’s Food Bank. “That’s a big problem. These people desperately need the help.”
Author’s Note: I find an old Chinese proverb particularly apt in describing this situation. As my dad always used to quote: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” Needless to say, I agree with Kasich.
Editor’s Note: Public assistance is an addiction, there will be some pain in the detox process. While I feel for the people who have to go through this, I recognize, like a drug addiction, they do have to go through it and they will have better lives when they are past it and contributing to socieity.