A March 2023 study from the Urban Institute found that almost 25% of American adults are food insecure, up five percentage points from a year earlier. File photo contributed by Deborah Myers
Food assistance advocates contend that a Georgia agency’s refusal to apply for a federal work exemption puts thousands of Georgians in danger of losing much-needed monthly payments for groceries.
Since July 1, more than 87,000 Georgian adults without children are required to work at least 80 hours a month in order to receive benefits provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as food stamps. The shift in policy comes after the Georgia Division of Family and Children Services declined to request that the U.S. Department of Agriculture temporarily waive the work guidelines that were suspended since March 2020 during the public health emergency.
The “able-bodied adults without dependents” program requires participants to work a minimum of 20 hours per week, enroll in job training or perform state-approved volunteering. Participants who fail to meet these standards for three consecutive months will be cut off from receiving any more food stamps for another three years.
Supporters of the work requirement see it as an incentive for adults to put in some sweat equity in order to earn the benefits that help put food on the family table. However, Ife Finch Floyd, director of economic justice at Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, says the state’s family and children’s services are reversing a longstanding policy while ignoring research that minimizes the motivational effects of mandatory work hours.
Floyd says that since the Great Recession, officially counted as late 2007 until June 2009, Georgia sought waivers from the federal government that suspended work rules for areas where jobs were hard to find. Georgians working jobs with inconsistent schedules who average 70 hours a month would be disqualified from the federal program after three months.
“During the Great Recession there were certainly a lot of tough economic conditions across states, but even as the overall economy improved certain counties were still struggling,” Floyd said.
“What is concerning for us is that unemployed people, people who are underemployed may be at risk of losing benefits if they’re having trouble meeting those work requirements,” she said.
In a response to a question about the decision to not apply for the waiver, a Georgia Department of Human Services’ Division of Family and Children Services spokeswoman referenced that federal law limits waivers to areas that have unemployment rates above 10 percent or otherwise do not have a sufficient number of jobs.
Georgia’s statewide unemployment rate of 3.2% in June was below the national average of 3.6%. Prior to the declaration of the public health emergency in spring 2020, Georgia routinely requested exemptions for dozens of counties with unemployment rates above 20% over a 24-month period.
Over a year-long period through May, several counties averaged unemployment rates of at least 4.3%, exceeding the 20% threshold.
The maximum monthly allocation for the able-bodied SNAP program is determined by the household’s monthly income. A one-person household receives up to $281 per month.
There are a number of job training programs and educational opportunities offered by the state that can count toward work requirements and improve the odds of SNAP recipients finding employment, the state agency said.
“The goal of the program is to help all SNAP recipients who are unemployed or underemployed with getting a good-paying job that eliminates their reliance on public assistance program,” DHS spokeswoman Kylie Winton wrote in an email.
Summer feeding programs for children (INFO BOX)
Georgia’s family and children’s services has recently started distributing extra money to families with school age children for a summer food program.
Families receiving SNAP benefits who have children six years of age and older will receive a one-time payment of $123
The agency has also started sending Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfers, or P-EBTs, to families with children under five years old. Those families will receive $26.94 per child each month. Those benefits are also available to children who turn six between August and December 2022.
The changes to Georgia’s able-bodied adults program are also coinciding with major adjustments looming from Congress, which passed a Fiscal Responsibility Act in June that tacks on additional work requirements for adults ages 18 to 55 without dependents.
The new law also exempts from the workload policy veterans, people experiencing homelessness and someone under 24 who is aging out of the foster care system
Starting this fall, the ages that must follow time limits increases until it reaches 55 in 2025.
Catherine Buhrig, associate administrator for USDA’s SNAP benefits, recently updated state food assistance directors about the upcoming changes. In the June 30 letter, she urged states to update their policy documents, train staff, collaborate with other agencies, and meet directly with families that could be affected.
“Implementing these provisions will require state agencies to make extensive changes in a short period of time,’ Buhrig wrote.
One of the groups calling for reining in the SNAP program for able-bodied adults is the conservative American public policy think tank, the Foundation for Government Accountability.
According to the foundation, many states have taken advantage of the system over the years to exempt as many counties as possible from the work requirement. About four million people were enrolled in the program this spring, with three-quarters of participants unemployed, according to a research paper published by the foundation in May.
“States have used loopholes and gimmicks to waive work requirements enacted by congress, even in areas with record-low unemployment,” the report said.
Charles Bliss, director of advocacy for Atlanta Legal Aid Society, said that understanding the requirements for each SNAP program can become complicated to a point where many people don’t understand what’s happening or why their benefits get cut off.
Atlanta Legal Aid provides free civil legal guidance for low income people across the metro area. Most of the food assistance program problems Georgians face with the state are related to administrative issues, such as paperwork and interview coordination, Bliss said.
But he’s worried about the mandatory work requirement will have unintended consequences.
“The real problem is that it doesn’t really do much to get more people working,” Bliss said. “It just does more to cut people off benefits.”
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