Work requirements thin food stamp ranks

Food Stamp Work Mandate

» Georgia and several other states implemented the work requirements in January. Essentially, the requirements are federal rules that were suspended during the Recession due to the tough job market, but are coming back as the economy improves.

» The rules place a time limit on receiving food stamps, mandating that a childless adult may receive the benefit for no more than three months in any three-year period, before they need to obtain a job. They must work, or perform volunteer work, for at least 20 hours a week to continue receiving food stamps.

» The work requirements and time limits do not affect everyone collecting food stamps, which in Georgia equals about one in six people, or 1.7 million recipients. The average benefit for a childless adult is $194 a month. Food stamps are fully funded through the federal government, though Georgia pays a part of the cost to administer the program.

The state has dropped thousands of able-bodied people from the food stamp rolls until they find jobs, but the state has had little success helping these people find work, according to a review by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Since January, 3,600 people in Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall counties have lost their food stamps because of the new rule that requires able-bodied, childless adults to work in order to receive the benefit.

Meanwhile, two state programs aimed at helping these food stamp recipients find work have resulted in only 26 such individuals landing jobs this year. One of those programs is funded by $15 million in federal money and has only helped nine people find jobs so far. Funding for it was announced more than a year ago.

State officials and lawmakers are actively in discussions to expand the work requirements to potentially thousands more Georgians. But they acknowledge they have little understanding of what happens to people who lose the benefits.

Despite the lackluster performance of the jobs programs, state food stamp officials insist they want to help these recipients find work.

“The greater good is people being employed, being productive and contributing to the state,” said Bobby Cagle, director of the state Division of Family and Children Services.

Some elected officials, however, believe the state has no responsibility to provide these people with extra job-hunting assistance, beyond what’s offered to anyone else in the state. They suspect some of these recipients are abusing the system and that once they are cut loose from government assistance, they will look harder for a job.

"Anybody who is able-bodied and has the ability to work, should not be on food stamps," said state Rep. Greg Morris, R-Vidalia. Morris is among those lawmakers who favor making the work requirements statewide.

Others, however, say these recipients, despite being classified as able-bodied, often face barriers to employment such as little education and mental and physical problems. State Rep. David Wilkerson, D-Powder Springs, said many need the extra help to prevent them from sliding further into poverty, if not hunger, and becoming more of a burden on the state.

Wilkerson said it’s too early for the state to even consider extending the work requirements across the state. DFCS must improve its ability to help people find jobs.

“They have not shown they can help people get back to work,” he said.

Currently, the work requirements apply to able-bodied, childless adults in Cobb, Gwinnett and Hall counties. Since the rules were enacted in January, the number of these food stamp recipients has dropped from 6,000 to 2,400 there.

Georgia has a total of 113,000 food stamp recipients classified as childless and able-bodied adults, according to DFCS. Any significant expansion in the mandate could result in thousands of people either entering the work force or falling on hard times.

The AJC spoke with state officials, experts and advocates to assess the effect of these work requirements on the food stamp system. The AJC also looked at work mandates in other states, and learned that these requirements were kicking hundreds of thousands of people off food stamps across the country.

Beyond that, the AJC caught up with several metro Atlantans who’ve lost their food stamps. Some indeed had found work, such as Dorenda Wright. The Powder Springs woman was unemployed when she received the state letter warning that, unless she found a job, she would lose her food stamps.

Shortly thereafter she landed a job as a dietary worker at a nursing facility.

“I was already in the process of looking,” she said.

‘It’s hard not having any food’

When the letter arrived from the state, Army veteran Abdul Kately was stunned. He was being cut off from food stamps. If he wanted to continue receiving them, the agency told him, he needed to get a job.

But the Marietta resident says he can’t work. He permanently damaged his left elbow while exercising in the service and his other arm, after years of overuse, is also in poor shape. Kately has been wrangling with the state since losing his food stamps almost two months ago. In the meantime, he’s been relying on a food pantry to keep from starving.

“It’s hard not having any food,” he said.

What can Georgia expect should it expand the work requirements across more counties or statewide?

Essentially, a vast number of able-bodied, childless adults would lose their food stamps, judging by what’s happened in states such as Florida and Kansas, which already have statewide requirements.

In Florida, a total of 348,980 people lost their food stamps after the work requirements were implemented in January. That reduced the number of able-bodied, childless recipients by 78 percent, according to state figures.

In Kansas, the number of these food stamp recipients dropped by 75 percent.

The work requirements are actually federal rules enacted during the welfare reforms of the nineties. The rules were suspended during the Recession and have re-emerged in some 40 states since the economy improved. Food stamps are fully funded through the federal government, though Georgia pays a part of the cost to administer the program.

Expanding the work requirements could actually require more state spending, said Cagle, the head of DFCS. He said a statewide expansion could cost DFCS as much as $40 million more a year, requiring as many as 686 additional full-time employees to work with people, provide job training and help with job searches.

Able-bodied, childless adults represent only a small number of food stamp recipients. In Georgia, 1.7 million people, or about one in every six people, receive this assistance. The majority are children, the elderly and the disabled.

Less than a handful of states have tracked food stamp recipients once they have left the program. Public policy experts differ, often along political lines, as to what these case studies mean.

The conservative Foundation for Government Accountability argued that the work requirements succeeded in “freeing people from welfare” and lives “trapped in dependency.” The foundation, looking at the program in Kansas, said that nearly 60 percent of those leaving food stamps found employment within 12 months.

But Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst with the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that study was wrong to link the work requirements to people landing a job. Many food stamp recipients work, or are moving in and out of employment. He does not believe food stamps dissuade people from seeking work.

“I can’t imagine that receiving four or five dollars a day for food is keeping people from getting a job,” Bolen said.

‘They are terminating me tomorrow’

Letitia McGhee didn’t just walk into the DFCS office in Marietta. She stormed in.

“I just found out,” she said. “They are terminating me tomorrow.”

That was March 31. McGhee, 34, of Smyrna, said she had been on food stamps since she lost her job at a food warehouse in November.

When McGhee found out she’d have to wait to speak to a DFCS worker, she said she didn’t have the time and took off. A month later, she had not been back. She told the AJC she planned on reapplying for the benefits and had downloaded the application.

DFCS officials say they are not seeing many people reapplying for assistance. They suspect some people have obtained some level of employment, and may think it's not worthwhile to apply for a reduced amount of food stamps. The average benefit for an able-bodied person without children is $194 a month.

The work mandate requires that people work at least 20 hours a week to continue receiving food stamps. In the long run, a part-time worker might not want to navigate the food stamp system to receive what may be $25 a week in assistance, they said.

Several area food pantries told the AJC they are not seeing a bump in people needing help. The work requirements say that a person can only receive food stamps for three months before they need to find a job. The mandate began in January, so the majority of these people lost their benefits April 1.

Bolen, of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington D.C., worries about people dropped from the program. The center has estimated that the work requirements will cut off food stamps to more than 500,00 people nationwide this year.

"Many of these individuals find barriers to work, even if they have no children and meet the definition of able-bodied," Bolen said. "A lot of these folks have undiagnosed medical conditions because they have no health insurance."

Sandra Frederick, a DFCS official in the food stamp program, offered a less dire assessment, saying, “For the most part, I think they either do have some other means, or they are pursuing other means.”

Frederick offered a disturbing note of concern. For months, DFCS has offered orientations to inform able-bodied recipients about the work requirements. Attendance has been sparse, but she said some who’ve show up were actually not able to work. They may have been classified as able-bodied in the DFCS system but have physical or mental issues that prevent them from holding a job.

Struggle for food money

Two hours. That’s all it took for Michael Heisserer to lose his food stamps.

Heisserer was only working 18 hours a week at a fast food restaurant, but he needed 20 to continue receiving benefits. He lost them April 1.

Heisserer, 31, of Marietta, expects he’ll get some more work hours and reapply for food stamps. But that could mean a few months of struggling to find food money, as he collects the pay stubs and goes through the application process. For now, he’s shifting more of his salary from paying bills to buying food.

“I’m going to have to struggle to pay bills,” he said.

Georgia officials say that 40 percent of food stamp recipients are in working households.

As for the rest, Georgia's food stamp agency has a weak history of helping recipients find work. Officials say they are doing more, but programs are still struggling.

DFCS does not spend a great amount on its basic jobs program. The agency invests about $100,000 a year on the program, called Snap Works, with most of that money going toward helping people with transportation. The state also receives an annual $1.7 million federal grant for this program. Snap Works operates in 12 counties, most of which are in metro Atlanta.

Under this program, DFCS essentially does an assessment and directs people to the state Labor Department, where they receive the services of any job-seeker. That includes help crafting a resume and plugging them into an electronic database where people are matched with prospective employers.

So far this year, 17 have reported employment.

"This population can be hard to serve," said DFCS spokeswoman Mary Beth Lukich. "They may have multiple barriers to employment, such as lack of education, low literacy levels and transportation issues."

In March of last year, federal officials announced Georgia would receive a $15 million federal grant to enhance these job efforts. But progress has been slow on the pilot program aimed at providing food stamp recipients with intensive job services, as well as some vocational training. The program is slated for 10 counties, but only eight have thus far come on line, and most of them this year. Those counties include Cherokee, Clayton, DeKalb, Bulloch, Douglas, Gwinnett, Henry and Rockdale.

So far, only 9 people have obtained work through this program, DFCS officials said.

Lukich said final federal approval for the grant did not arrive until late January of this year. The agency began meeting with recipients in February. It has referred 130 people to the more intensive job assistance, but only 58 have shown up so far.

"We expect to see this number increase as many of our clients may need further education and training before finding employment," Lukich said.

‘Could have done better’

Abdul Kately, the veteran who lost his food stamps, eventually came to terms with the food stamp agency. After Kately spent nearly two months without food stamps, DFCS accepted his disability papers from the Veterans Administration as proof that he really could not work.

His food stamps, equalling $194 a month, have been reinstated.

“I think (the agency) could have done better,” he said. “It was so easy to get cut off, and so hard to get back on.”