@NCCapitol

@NCCapitol

Food stamps work rule to begin again in 23 counties

Posted December 31, 2015 7:30 a.m. EST
Updated January 1, 2016 6:50 p.m. EST

— Food stamp recipients in North Carolina's largest counties who remain out of a job in the new year may see their benefits end as a result of federal rule changes.

Since the recession, the entire state has been exempt from a federal requirement that able-bodied adults without children work or volunteer at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. But on Jan. 1, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will end that blanket exception, implementing the rule again for 23 North Carolina counties largely based on their recovering unemployment rates. Waivers remain in place for the rest of the state's counties for now.

Benefits won't stop immediately if an individual doesn't meet the work requirement – recipients can receive them for up to 90 days even if they're still jobless.

North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services Deputy Secretary Sherry Bradsher said the counties, which include Wake, Orange and Durham, account for about half the population of childless able-bodied adults in the state who receive food and nutrition benefits, commonly known as food stamps. That's about 59,000 people out of a potential 118,000 across the state who would be subject to the restarted work rules.

Although Bradsher said about 80 percent of food stamp recipients have jobs, many who don't meet the work requirement will need help with job placement and employee training services.

"From a readiness standpoint, most of these counties have some infrastructure in place to support these individuals," Bradsher said.

The exemptions will end for North Carolina's other 77 counties by July 1, following last-minute legislation by state lawmakers this fall to ban DHHS requests for work requirement waivers. The measure's supporters say reinstating the work requirement will push the jobless to step up their employment searches.

"When this goes into effect, you’re going to see a lot of them either go and get that 20-hour-a-week job, or they're going to enroll in some kind of job education," Sen. Norm Sanderson, R-Pamlico, said in September.

Because SNAP benefits, which average about $32 a week per person, are federally funded, the state itself won't save any money.

Critics say the end of waivers will mean more hardship for some areas, especially rural ones, still suffering from a lack of jobs.

Even in Wake County, where the jobless rate is less than 5 percent, Human Services Director Regina Petteway said the uneven recovery has meant that many are still struggling to find work.

"I think some people are just not going to want to or be able to do this," Petteway said.

There are up to 4,000 childless, able-bodied adults receiving food stamps in Wake County who may be subject to the work requirements, she said. County staff members are still working to identify the exact number, since other factors like homelessness or ongoing treatment for substance abuse could exempt them from the final figure. The total is also in flux because new applicants flow into Petteway's office daily.

"It's taken a lot of follow up, and because Wake County is so big and we had 4,000 people, we had to get on this quickly," Petteway said.

To prepare for the new year, Petteway said the department is working to find job and volunteer opportunities that can help people meet the work requirements and keep their benefits if they need them.

Bradsher said this work on the county level will be crucial to the remaining areas of the state that will become subject to the work rules by July, including those with higher unemployment and less developed infrastructures for helping people find work.

"We learn a lot from those counties that are first out of the gate," Bradsher said.