Indiana will next year cut off food stamp benefits to tens of thousands of residents who have not secured jobs or participated in work training programs.
Gov. Mike Pence (R), starting in the spring, will reinstate work eligibility requirements to the state food stamp program—a move seen by many observers as draconian while the economic recovery has largely not benefited low-wage workers.
Federal rules limit the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamp, benefits a person can receive if they don’t prove that they are actively seeking work, but states can have that requirement waived during periods of economic stress.
Indiana, along with most other states, had applied for and received waivers to bypass that rule during the Great Recession of 2008. Monthly food stamp participation rose between 2009 and 2013, reaching 926,011 Indianans, or 14 percent of the population, at its height.
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An Indiana resident, to qualify for food stamps, has to make $15,170 annually at most, or 130 percent of the federal poverty level.
Twenty-four Indiana counties have poverty rates of more than 15 percent, and in five counties, that rate exceeds 20 percent, according to state data.
The United States Department of Agriculture in May wrote a letter to state SNAP programs, saying that 37 states could still waive the work requirement for the 2015 fiscal year. A growing number of states, including Ohio, New York, Kansas, Utah, and now Indiana, have decided to reinstate the work requirements for at least part of the year even though they are not obligated by the federal government.
Lawmakers in the states turning down the waivers—most of which are states controlled by Republican legislatures—have said that keeping the waiver for too long will make people dependent on government.
“People who are in need deserve a hand up, but we should not be giving able-bodied individuals a handout,” Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage said in a statement announcing his state’s decision to once again enforce the work requirements. “We must protect our limited resources for those who are truly in need and who are doing all they can to be self-sufficient.”
In Indiana, state officials said the work requirements would increase the number of residents who are qualified to work.
“We view the re-establishment of the … time-limited benefits in Indiana as an opportunity to help improve the skills of our fellow Hoosiers and advance their prospects for meaningful employment, while at the same time establishing a pool of better-prepared candidates for the Indiana workforce,” said Lance Rhodes, director of the division of family resources of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration, in a letter to the USDA.
The state estimates that 65,000 of the 877,000 Indiana residents receiving food stamps will lose benefits due to the work requirements. But advocates for the poor have voiced opposition to the changes, saying that politicians are thinking about the problem the wrong way.
“Let’s figure out what the goals are for these able-bodied adults without dependents, and then let’s build a program that meets these goals,” Jessica Fraser, a program manager for the Indiana Institute for Working Families, told IndyStar. “That seems to make a little more sense to me.”
Meanwhile, recent statistics show that in the midwest there are nearly two million unemployed people and just over a million jobs in the region.
“It’s a lack of jobs, not a lack of willingness to work,” said Lisa Hamler-Fugitt of the Ohio Association of Food Banks. “In an environment where we have college graduates that are now competing for low-wage jobs, for folks with multiple barriers to employment, it’s going to be difficult for them to find work.”