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Waivers keep food-stamp rolls growing despite economic recovery

William Patrick

In the wake of the Great Recession, the incoming Obama administration waived work requirements for childless, healthy adults seeking federal food assistance through the program formerly known as food stamps.

Nearly eight years later, 38 states and U.S. territories still receive full or partial waivers despite a significantly improved economy, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The Naples-based Foundation for Government Accountability says suspending the work requirement for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has contributed to the vast expansion of the entitlement program.

“Although federal law requires these adults to work in order to receive food stamps, the Obama administration has awarded an unprecedented number of waivers to states, allowing able-bodied childless adults to receive taxpayer-funded food stamp benefits without working at all,” researchers for the conservative government watchdog wrote.

The USDA administers federal food assistance through SNAP, which cost $74 billion in 2015, an increase of $20 billion since 2009. More than 12 million new enrollees were receiving benefits as of last year.

Florida has the third-most SNAP enrollees of any state, with 3.6 million people receiving $5.7 billion in benefits in 2015 – an increase of 1.7 million people and $2.7 billion since 2009. contacted the Florida Department of Children and Families, responsible for administering state SNAP benefits, for information regarding able-bodied SNAP recipients in Florida, but DCF did not respond.

Beginning in 1996, able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 19 to 49 could receive SNAP benefits for only three months in a three-year period, unless they worked or volunteered 80 hours a month, participated in education or training activities, or performed unpaid work through a state-approved workfare program.

The work conditions were part of a major welfare reform bill passed by a Republican-led Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton 20 years ago. The purpose was to “dramatically change the nation's welfare system into one that requires work in exchange for time-limited assistance.”

That changed in 2009, when the Obama administration approved state waivers in response to widespread unemployment.

“Federal regulations allow the Food and Nutrition Service to waive the three-month time limit on SNAP benefits for able bodied adults without dependents if FNS determines that the area in which the individual resides does not have a sufficient number of jobs,” a policy change document posted on the USDA’s website reads.

While the jobs outlook has significantly improved, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s chief employment measure, the waivers persist.

In 2009, the national unemployment rate was 9.9 percent and has declined every year since. As of Aug. 19, the national unemployment rate stood at 4.9 percent.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, every state still receiving full or partial waivers for able-bodied childless adults has an unemployment rate lower than its 2009 figure.

California, Rhode Island and Illinois still receive full waivers despite unemployment rates under six percent. Michigan receives a full waiver with 4.5 percent unemployment, which is lower than any of the 15 states without work waivers.

And states can still apply and be approved by an amenable administration.

The USDA approves full or partial state waiver applications if:

All or part of the state is eligible for extended unemployment benefits.

There is a recent unemployment rate of more than 10 percent.

There is a recent 24-month average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national rate.

The Labor Department declares a “labor surplus.”

Florida no longer receives its “temporary” waiver, as of Jan. 1 of this year.

“Florida’s improved economy has made the state ineligible to waive the federal requirement,” states the Department of Children and Families.

Florida’s 2009 unemployment rate was 11.2 percent. It was 5.1 percent when the able-bodied worker waiver was revoked.

An FGA report states that governors can simply refuse to renew waivers regardless of whether the USDA would approve.

“Reinstating work requirements for able-bodied childless adults receiving food stamps has proven profoundly successful in decreasing food stamp enrollment, returning more people to work, and even increasing volunteerism,” FGA concludes.

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