Prosperity Watch Issue 53, No. 5: Up to 105,000 unemployed childless adults in North Carolina would lose food aid in 2016 if legislators prohibit new waiver

September 28, 2015

North Carolina is the fifth hungriest state in the nation. Yet the state Senate gave tentative approval to a bill that unnecessarily restricts food aid for childless adults who are very poor and live in areas where jobs are scarce—regardless of how hard they are looking for work.

States can temporarily suspend work-related time limits on federal food aid for areas with sustained high levels of unemployment. In July, North Carolina officials applied for a waiver for 77 of the state’s 100 counties due to a severe lack of available jobs, hampering North Carolinians’ ability to meet the work requirements (see map below). The Senate measure, however, would permanently ban the state from pursuing this option irrespective of how local economies are faring or whether employment and training opportunities actually exist.

Between 85,000 and 105,000 unemployed childless adults in North Carolina would lose food aid in 2016 if they can’t find work and if legislators prohibit the Governor’s administration from seeking a new waiver.*  

 

In the federally-funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), there is a three-month limit on benefits for childless adults between 18 and 50 who have a disability or aren’t raising children. There is no time limit for adults who work 20 hours a week, participate in a qualified job training program for 20 hours a week, or in workfare. Meeting those job requirements is especially difficult in an economic downturn and its aftermath—or in areas that have historically faced persistently high unemployment levels. States do not have to offer a job or training opportunity—and most states, including North Carolina, do not.

That is why there is a waiver option but states have to meet a very high bar to qualify. The ban in the Senate measure, however, means that North Carolina cannot move forward with the waiver request for which the state qualifies.

Below are the top 5 reasons why the ban is a policy failure and bad for North Carolinians doing their best but struggling to make ends meet:

  1. Eighty-three of the state’s 100 counties have more jobless workers than job openings. Job opportunities are very limited for these individuals, especially for people who lack basic job skills like reading and writing. It makes no sense to impose a time limit on food assistance in areas with a documented lack of jobs when a temporary waiver of the time limit is available.
     
  2. North Carolina does not have a plan in place to provide a job slot, volunteer position, or skills training opportunity to all individuals subject to the time limit. Only five of the 77 counties operate a SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) program, and those programs only anticipate working with 492 jobless adults per year—total. Yet, prohibiting the waiver is estimated to affect between 85,000 and 105,000 people, meaning even if the state were to redirect the entire employment and training program to serving just this group, North Carolina doesn’t have the funds to offer them work slots.

    Volunteer postings totaling 20 hours a week are hard to come by in many urban areas, let alone more rural settings. None of the state’s 100 counties participate in SNAP workfare. Jobless adults would only be able to volunteer at county-approved nonprofits and for-profits, like churches and hospitals. But case workers—who are required to certify the volunteer opportunities are met—are not required to share the list of approved volunteer hosts with the childless adults.

    It is unclear if North Carolina’s public assistance IT systems are sufficiently prepared to track monthly information over a three-year period. This is essential to ensuring that childless adults are accurately assessed for whether they are working, volunteering, or in skills training for the 20 hours—especially those who are participating in these activities outside of the SNAP E&T programs. These big remaining questions warrant answers before rushing this measure into law.
     

  3. More North Carolinians who are already extremely poor will go hungry if they can’t find work or turn to a local food bank. The average income of jobless childless adults is just 19 percent of the stingy poverty line, or $2,236 a year. And the folks who lawmakers would cut off from benefits in high unemployment areas include veterans, people who are homeless, and under-unemployed workers who want to work. Very few qualify for other help.

    The loss of this food assistance, which averages approximately $150 to $200 per person per month for this group, will likely cause serious hardship. It would force many individuals to seek help from food banks and charities, which are ill-prepared to replace such a significant loss of assistance. Food banks are already stretched very thin due to the weak economy, lawmakers’ decision to drastically reduce unemployment benefits for jobless workers in the state, and recent cuts to food aid at the federal level.
     

  4. Supporters of the ban ignore the fact that more than half of SNAP recipients who can work (like childless adults without a disability) do so. Proponents of the bill claim that this measure would get rid of work disincentives but there is proof that SNAP receipt does not create work incentives. The overwhelming majority (over 90 percent) of this group does not stop working when they start receiving SNAP, according to analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

    The Center also found that the number of SNAP households earning income while participating in the program more than tripled from 2000 to 2013, as many people turned to SNAP to help bridge the gap resulting from underemployment—nothing the Senate measure addresses.  
     

  5. The ban is an extreme policy position. Every state except Delaware has waived the time limit for at least part of their state at some point due to scarce jobs and volunteer opportunities. During the recent recession, many states qualified for and implemented state-wide waivers from the time limit.

    The Senate measure would permanently eliminate the Governor’s authority to respond to tough economic times by prohibiting the provision of SNAP benefits to childless adults during tough times. North Carolina does not have to request a waiver (though there is a compelling economic reality to do so), but a ban would eliminate any ability to alleviate widespread joblessness today or in the next recession.

The bottom line is SNAP, along with unemployment insurance, is our nation’s primary response to widespread economic hardship and a worsening labor market. Permanently barring the state from even having the option to provide food assistance to unemployed childless adults during times of high unemployment would be a complete policy failure.

*Special data request to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. September 2015.
 

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