Reversing eight years of state policy, the McCrory administration is restoring requirements that able-bodied adults without dependent children must work to continue receiving food stamps in North Carolina.
About 50 percent of the more than 200,000 recipients of the federal benefit will be affected beginning Jan. 1, primarily residents of more urbanized counties with larger social service agencies. Recipients in the remaining counties will be subjected to the new rules in subsequent months, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
North Carolina submitted the necessary federal paperwork to begin reinstating the work requirements, said Sherry Bradsher, DHHS deputy secretary.
“We do not anticipate that it will take a full year to get the full implementation,” she said.
The federal 1996 welfare reform law requires childless, able-bodied adults to work, participate in a job-training program, or a combination of the two at least 20 hours weekly to receive food stamps. The Obama administration granted states permission to disregard the mandates.
By 2013, 40 states received full waivers, and six other states were granted partial waivers, contributing to a record rise nationally in the food stamp program, which is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Despite the improving economy, 42 states still operate under waivers.
High unemployment from the loss of manufacturing, textile, and furniture jobs prompted North Carolina to seek the work waiver in 2008, Bradsher said.
“I think everybody thinks work is the right thing for these individuals, and we want to be successful in our implementation,” Bradsher said.
“Work is important to individuals because it’s a feeling of success, it’s a feeling of contributing to our society, and being responsible for oneself,” Bradsher said.
“And we know through the data that’s available to us when you work you tend to be healthier,” have more dignity and self-respect, and can contribute to the economy, tax base, and communities, Bradsher said.
State Rep. Jean Farmer-Butterfield, D-Wilson, vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee on Health and Human Services and a member of the General Assembly’s budget conference committee, was caught by surprise when asked about the program changes.
“I’m disappointed,” she said. “I haven’t heard a thing.”
Some recipients “don’t have a job, and they don’t have any money, and they haven’t been able to get a job,” Farmer-Butterfield said. “If they’re getting food stamps, and they’re not getting anything else, that’s not a lot to get.”
The average recipient in North Carolina receives about $36 per month in food stamps, according to DHHS. The money comes from federal allocations, so any savings would not affect North Carolina’s budget, Bradsher said. However, counties — which administer the food stamp program — may experience some savings if fewer employees are needed to handle a lower number of recipients.
The Foundation for Government Accountability, a Florida-based free market research and advocacy organization, determined that 210,000 childless adults receive food stamps in North Carolina, a 2,933 percent increase since 2001. Overall food stamp enrollment in the state grew by 256 percent from 2000-13.
The FGA study further projected that if Gov. Pat McCrory restored the work requirements, 126,000 to 168,000 able-bodied adults “could be freed from the welfare trap” that keeps people in poverty.
A DHHS county-by-county projection found only 103,276 individuals who “will likely be required to meet the new work requirements.” Some already are reporting earned wages, which are tracked. The number of hours is not.
“This means some of the individuals … may already be meeting the work requirement,” DHHS spokesman Alexandra Lefebvre said.
Training to help implement the transition back to the work requirements will take place for government workers in all 100 counties Sept. 28-30.
There first 23 counties in the phased rollout are: Alamance, Alexander, Buncombe, Cabarrus, Catawba, Davidson, Davie, Durham, Forsyth, Gaston, Guilford, Haywood, Henderson, Iredell, Lincoln, Mecklenburg, New Hanover, Orange, Randolph, Union, Wake, Watauga, and Yadkin.
“Those are the counties that really have strong infrastructures in place, mostly larger metropolitan areas,” Bradsher said. “As we move into the first quarter of next year, and throughout the spring, we’ll be implementing in other counties as they are ready, and we develop that infrastructure.”
Because some counties will have a delayed start, the state had to obtain a partial waiver from the work requirements from the federal government.
“The purpose of the waiver is not to cut folks a break,” said McCrory spokesman Rick Martinez. “We believe in work.”
Phasing in the new rules will allow a smoother transition, Martinez said.
“The taxpayer isn’t served by … implementing it when we don’t have it right, nor is the person receiving benefits,” Martinez said.
Bradsher said the work requirements might not be uniform in all counties, depending on what jobs and work program infrastructure they have.
“Obviously, looking for work and getting a job is the A No. 1 priority,” Bradsher said. “There are some other activities that one might be engaged in for short periods of time leading to employment. But that also will be county-specific.”
She said participants wouldn’t be able to game the system.
“The program’s a lot more structured than that,” Bradsher said. “It’s not one that allows people to go back to school and work towards an advanced degree or anything like that. It really is something that’s very targeted, short-term, leads to work, gets you there as quick as we can.”
NC Works, the job bank for North Carolina, “is key to our success,” Bradsher said. Program participants will be directed there to find jobs they qualify for in their community.
Until the program is implemented in a county, food stamp recipients would continue to get benefits unchanged.
But once the program rolls out in a county, if someone collects SNAP benefits for more than three months during any three-year period but did not comply with the work requirements, that person would lose benefits.
Dan E. Way (@danway_carolina) is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.