No job, no food stamps: Would stricter rules let more Illinoisans feel ‘power of work,’ or would change just be ‘cruel’?

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For at least a decade, most Illinois residents who receive food stamps have been exempt from a federal law that requires them to work or risk losing their benefits.

But a proposal that would make it harder to obtain those exemptions — a move designed to encourage people to find jobs while unemployment is low — has social service agencies in Illinois, like elsewhere, worried that the poor will only plunge deeper into poverty.

Some 38 million people nationwide use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, to buy groceries. Mostly, they are children, the elderly or people with disabilities.

But many other recipients — about 8 percent — do not have such disadvantages: they are considered able-bodied adults, under 50, who do not have children or other dependents. Federal law limits them to three months of food stamps during a three-year period unless they are working, volunteering or in job training for at least 80 hours a month.

The Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP in the state, opposes the proposed change, saying it “would disqualify more than 160,000 Illinoisans from receiving the food assistance they depend on.” However, it added, “we also recognize that some of our clients can and want to work” and is looking into ways encourage that.

Though unemployment is low overall, it remains high for certain populations, including people with less than a high school diploma and African-Americans, and many low-wage jobs are temporary or have unpredictable part-time hours.

Being enrolled in job training counts toward the work requirement, but the rule change is not accompanied by sufficient investment in job training programs, said Mari Castaldi, director of policy and advocacy at the Chicago Jobs Council, a nonprofit employment advocacy group.

Castaldi estimates that there are 20,000 slots in job training programs available across the state, which she says is not nearly enough to accommodate the SNAP recipients needing help.

“Our biggest concern is the drastic imbalance of what is available to these folks,” she said. Searching for a job does not count toward the work requirement.

Conrad Watson, 29, who lives in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, is among the SNAP recipients who could be at risk of losing benefits if the rule is imposed. He has been receiving SNAP for the past 10 years, since he graduated from an alternative high school in Bronzeville, though his $192 monthly benefit isn’t always enough so he also frequents food pantries.

Sitting in a pew at a Ravenswood church waiting for the weekly food pantry to begin, Watson said he struggled in school and in job interviews. He has worked as a helper for his dad, a carpenter, and his grandmother, who had a job refilling vending machines, but otherwise has limited job experience.

Work requirements might force him to stay more focused, he said, but he worries about meeting 80 hours a month; when he had to do 20 hours of community service in high school he remembers that felt like a lot.

“It’s kind of a scary thing,” Watson said of the prospect of losing benefits if he doesn’t meet the work hours. He wants to work, he added, and got his associate’s degree from a community college four years ago, but is still trying to figure out his career path.

Undiagnosed disabilities

Adding to the complexity of the issue is that many SNAP recipients considered able-bodied have undiagnosed disabilities, said Dylan Prendergast, senior benefits and entitlement specialist at the Heartland Alliance. Getting an official disability designation can take years. A written statement from a health care professional can also suffice, but even that is challenging for someone without a steady medical provider, he said.

People have walked into Heartland’s offices after not eating for five days because they lost their food stamps for failure to submit regular six-month redetermination forms, Prendergast said. That often happens with those who are homeless or are in unstable housing because they don’t have a valid mailing address.

Adding work requirements on top of those stressors is unlikely to improve their chances of success, he said.

“It’s very hard to find a job on your own and maintain it if you don’t have a stable home and don’t have anything to eat,” Prendergast said.

Karen Hilberg, 33, never thought she would find herself trying to navigate the public benefits system. Hilberg was a teacher at a Chicago public high school when she suffered a brain injury at work in 2012, and says she has been unable to work since because of severe migraines and memory problems.

It took Hilberg four years and three appeals to get approved for Social Security Disability Insurance, and while she waited she was cycled on and off of food stamps depending on whether her family had lent her some money that month.

“There is such a sense that we are trying to scam people out of grocery money,” said Hilberg, who lives in Logan Square. “I can’t imagine why anybody would put their energy into that scam.”

The Jane Addams Resource Corp., which runs a manufacturing job training program for dislocated workers and highly challenged job seekers, sees how hard people try to enter the workforce.

The program has more applicants than it can take, and those who do get a spot grapple with numerous challenges that make it hard to see it through, said Regan Brewer Johnson, executive vice president at the organization.

Sometimes they are returning from prison and struggling to reconnect with family, sometimes their lights are about to be turned off or they are being served with an eviction notice. Sometimes it’s all of those things.

“When your life is falling apart at home it’s really hard to sit in a welding booth and focus on that weld for eight to 10 hours a day,” Brewer Johnson said.

Life without waivers

Some states that have voluntarily declined waivers from the three-month time limit have reported steep enrollment declines in SNAP as well as increases in work rates and wages. But the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank, has disputed those findings, calling the methodology flawed and misleading.

In DuPage County, which became subject to the food stamp time limit last April, community groups held workshops in the months leading up to the change to help people meet the 80-hour monthly work threshold or document disabilities so they wouldn’t have to meet the requirements, said David Roth, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform.

Still, more than 2,000 SNAP recipients lost food stamps because they didn’t meet the work requirements, nearly half of those who were subject to them, according to the state. Some of those benefits were later restored when people supplied documentation.

Roth believes that most of those who lost benefits are in the workforce but just not working enough. He worries about how they’re getting by without grocery money.

“They give up food to pay for the house or the car, or they give up the car to eat and then they can’t get to work,” he said. That’s not only disruptive to their lives but to their employers, he said.

“We want to be able to equip people to move up the rungs,” Roth added. “This policy change will have done the opposite.”

aelejalderuiz@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @alexiaer

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March 13, 2019 at 03:39PM

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