There’s an update to this story: here
By Rose Hoban
County social service workers were scrambling this weekend to get a handle on what a provision slipped into a bill dealing mostly with immigrants might mean for them.
The 11 lines tacked onto the end of the Protect North Carolina Workers Act (HB 318) would prohibit the state Department of Health and Human Services from asking federal officials for permission to extend food stamp benefits to unemployed, childless adults.
“A lot of these folks, they haven’t had a disability determination; many have health problems or other barriers to getting a job, like a criminal conviction or poor education,” said Doug Sea, an attorney from Legal Aid of North Carolina. “Most of all, they’re in a county that has no jobs.”
The provision would hit hardest in 77 of North Carolina’s 100 counties, some of which have double-digit unemployment rates. Those counties were given an additional year of the federal waiver on SNAP work rules, which expire in January 2017.
Twenty-three other counties, which have better unemployment statistics, are preparing to phase out the extended SNAP benefits on Jan. 1, 2016.
But if the bill passes, every county would have its waiver for the federal rules terminated almost immediately, on Oct. 1.
Sea noted all the benefits are paid with federal dollars; no state money would be affected.
No jobs, no time
Since passage of federal welfare reform in 1996, food stamps for “able-bodied adults without dependents” have been limited to three months every three years.
But when the national economy collapsed in 2008 and unemployment spiked, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs SNAP, waived the regulation, allowing able-bodied adults without dependents to continue getting food stamps as they looked for work.
Last year, the USDA announced an end to the blanket waiver of the three-months-per-three-years rule, except in areas where jobs are scarce. Federal officials told states to establish employment and training programs for those jobless who are still getting SNAP benefits, but also allowed them to apply for continued waivers if they needed more time.
That’s what North Carolina’s DHHS has done for the 77 counties where unemployment is high enough to qualify for the waiver.
Susan McCracken, Lincoln County’s social services director, is gearing up for her employment and training program to start in coming months. She’s in one of the 23 counties where the extended SNAP benefits will end on New Year’s Day.
“We understand the sentiment that people who can work should work. But there are people who cannot,” McCracken said. “There will be folks who have been struggling to find work and might be suffering from health problems or other issues that have prevented them from locating or maintaining a job.”
She said in more urban counties with more resources, county social service departments are ready to provide the employment and training. Those counties also tend to have more job opportunities.
McCracken said county social service departments are meanwhile coping with a lot of other issues, including new software and new state and federal requirements for benefits.
“In some of the rural, small counties, with all the things going on and fewer resources, it’ll be more of a difficult situation,” she said.” The extra time was to help them get this [employment and training program] set up.”
“Get that 20-hour a week job”
Lawmakers in the Senate who debated the bill on Thursday said cutting off the benefits would induce people to find jobs.
“I don’t know the exact number of people that this can ultimately affect, but I think that you’re going to see a lot of them either go and get that 20-hour-a-week job or they’re going to enroll in some kind of higher education to improve their job skills,” said Sen. Norman Sanderson (R-Arapahoe).
Sen. Angela Bryant (D-Rocky Mount), who proposed an amendment to remove the provision from the bill, called the measure “cruel-hearted.”
“The recovery from the recession hasn’t been even-handed, and we know that. The average time to find another job, even part time, it can take some people up to a year,” she said. “It is harmful to them and to our community to force them into hunger when there are bigger forces creating this problem.”
According to statistics from the N.C. Employment Security Division, the state unemployment rate is 6.1 percent, but in some counties it’s as high as 12.3 percent.
During June, the rate in Dare County was 5.3 percent, but Bonnie Drewry, a supervisor with the county social services division, said that number goes up in the off-season. Last winter, Dare County’s unemployment rate climbed to 13.7 percent.
“We have a seasonal economy, and in the off-season jobs are scarce,” Drewry said. “When there are jobs, people work, and when the season ends, there are fewer jobs; there’s no work for them to do.”
During Thursday’s debate, some senators pointed out that people without jobs could spend 20 hours a week doing volunteer work in order to continue receiving SNAP benefits.
Doug Sea scoffed at that idea, noting that social service agencies are already overwhelmed. Even if there were enough volunteer positions to occupy everyone, he said, staff would be unable to adequately track volunteer hours.
“The last time we had something like this in effect, there were very high error rates due to the complexity of tracking the requirements,” Sea said.
McCracken concurred that county social service departments are struggling with a lot of challenges. NC FAST, the computer system for social service benefits, has difficulties beyond its much-publicized problems signing people up for SNAP in early 2014. As late as May of this year, the USDA cited the state’s “chronically poor performance in timeliness” in processing SNAP applications.
And workers at several county social service departments contacted for this story were unable to say how many people in their counties would be affected by the changes if HB 318 were enacted next month because it’s so hard to extract information from the database.
Sea estimated the termination of benefits could affect tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of North Carolina’s 1.64 million SNAP recipients.
“The error rate for benefits has gone up substantially, in part because of NC FAST,” Sea said. “It’s had enormous problems and it’s causing county workers to spend many more hours to process a case than they used to.”