Is It Too Soon After the Recession to Roll Back Food-Stamp Programs?

States with high unemployment are rejecting a federal option that makes food stamps more accessible.

A girl pays for her mother's groceries using food stamp tokens at a farmer's market in New York City.
National Journal
Kaveh Waddell
Aug. 7, 2014, 11:33 a.m.

As the U.S. eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery ac­cel­er­ates, states are be­gin­ning to wind down spe­cial al­low­ances for food as­sist­ance that were put in place dur­ing the re­ces­sion. Some states no longer qual­i­fy for al­low­ances be­cause their eco­nom­ies have re­covered, while oth­ers re­ject them for polit­ic­al reas­ons.

These al­low­ances come in the form of waivers that al­low states to provide low-in­come res­id­ents ac­cess to the Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram, known as food stamps, without re­quir­ing that they work at least 20 hours a week. A 1996 fed­er­al wel­fare-re­form bill in­tro­duced these waivers; states are only eli­gible to ap­ply for one if they meet cer­tain cri­ter­ia for need, such as hav­ing an un­em­ploy­ment level above 10 per­cent or ex­per­i­en­cing a low and de­clin­ing em­ploy­ment-to-pop­u­la­tion ra­tio.

The re­ces­sion that began in 2008 was the first event that pushed many states bey­ond the un­em­ploy­ment cutoff. A large num­ber chose to take the waiver in or­der to ease the bur­den of the eco­nom­ic down­turn on res­id­ents: At the be­gin­ning of fisc­al 2014, 42 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia were im­ple­ment­ing a par­tial or com­plete waiver.

But not all states that qual­i­fy for the waiver choose to take it. Polit­ic­al con­sid­er­a­tions have driv­en some states that are con­sidered in need to turn down the fed­er­al waiver and re­im­ple­ment work re­quire­ments for food-stamp re­cip­i­ents.

Earli­er this week, New Mex­ico Gov. Susana Mar­tinez pro­posed shed­ding her state’s waiver and rees­tab­lish­ing work re­quire­ments for low-in­come res­id­ents who re­ceive food stamps, a move that will af­fect the ap­prox­im­ately 26,600 “able-bod­ied adults” without de­pend­ents who cur­rently par­ti­cip­ate in the state’s food as­sist­ance pro­grams. The change would go in­to ef­fect in Oc­to­ber, after which food-stamp re­cip­i­ents will be re­quired to work 20 hours a week to re­ceive be­ne­fits. Com­munity-ser­vice hours and job train­ing can count to­ward the weekly re­quire­ment.

New Mex­ico will im­ple­ment the re­quire­ment for the first time since 2009, when it first took ad­vant­age of the fed­er­al waiver.

Mar­tinez’s pro­pos­al has a twin in Maine, where Gov. Paul LePage wants to get rid of a six-year-old work-re­quire­ment waiver. The move would hold all 12,000 “able-bod­ied food stamp re­cip­i­ents” in Maine to the 20-hour-a-week re­quire­ment, with al­low­ances for com­munity ser­vice, also start­ing in Oc­to­ber.

But New Mex­ico and Maine are still fa­cing ser­i­ous eco­nom­ic prob­lems. Ac­cord­ing to data from the U.S. Ag­ri­cul­ture De­part­ment, New Mex­ico is the second-largest food as­sist­ance pro­vider in the coun­try, pro­por­tion­al to its pop­u­la­tion. Maine ranks 12th on the same list. New Mex­ico’s un­em­ploy­ment rate was at 7.3 per­cent in June, more than a per­cent­age point high­er than the fed­er­al rate. And al­though Maine’s un­em­ploy­ment is at a six-year low, it has only re­covered 63 per­cent of jobs lost in the re­ces­sion, com­pared with 106 per­cent job re­cov­ery na­tion­wide.

Na­tion­wide, food se­cur­ity re­mains a press­ing is­sue. In Au­gust 2013, 20.0 per­cent of Amer­ic­ans re­por­ted that they have struggled to af­ford food in the past year, a rate barely lower than the peak rate of 20.4 per­cent re­por­ted in Novem­ber 2008, at the worst point of the glob­al re­ces­sion.

If New Mex­ico and Maine re­ject work-re­quire­ment waivers, they will join five oth­er states that meet the re­quire­ments for waivers but don’t take them: Delaware, Kan­sas, Ok­lahoma, Utah, and Wis­con­sin. Some states like Ohio only waive the re­quire­ment for res­id­ents of a few of their most eco­nom­ic­ally de­pressed areas.

More and more states are likely to drop out of the waiver pro­gram as the eco­nom­ic re­cov­ery renders them in­eligible for the cri­ter­ia to par­ti­cip­ate. But as they are joined by par­tic­u­larly needy states like New Mex­ico and Maine, which re­ject the waiver on polit­ic­al grounds, many res­id­ents could be left un­able to find jobs that would qual­i­fy them to re­main a part of food-stamp pro­grams that they’ve par­ti­cip­ated in for years.

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