After the discussions about policy and paperwork, the final question on Monday morning was: How are these people going to eat?
With 2,700 people in Durham County at risk of losing their food stamp benefits, the Durham County Department of Social Services gave the county commissioners more information about the impact of the new law on this group of vulnerable people.
Known as Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, these are individuals between the ages of 18-49 who meet certain criteria: they aren’t disabled, they aren’t chronically homeless and they aren’t substance abusers whose condition prevents them from working. However, for whatever reason, they cannot find a job.
But in order to continue receiving food stamps, these people must work, volunteer or be in a training/educational program for 20 hours a week—harder than it sounds.
“It’s a chaotic time for people trying to make a living,” said DSS Director Michael Becketts, adding that the new requirement only “adds an extra thing” for people to do. “The question is, ‘How do they get access to food?’” Becketts said. “DSS doesn’t have capacity to help in that way.”
The unintended consequences of this policy are far-reaching. For example, if a 40-year-old woman is not working, volunteering or going to school 20 hours a week, but has a 17-year-old child who is on food stamps, then she would still be eligible for them as well. But when the child turns 18, both of them could lose their benefits.
And ex-offenders may not be able to find work or volunteer opportunities; if they have felony convictions, they may not be eligible for financial aid.
“It’s punitive,” said Commissioner Wendy Jacobs. “If they mess up, they’re then penalized for most of three years.”
That’s true: If they don’t adhere to the new rules, these people could lose their food stamp benefits for up to three years. They can reapply, provided they’re complying with the rules.
The rules are new, prompted by changes on the federal level. However, states may continue to request time limit waivers in areas with high unemployment.
Durham is one of 23 counties that was no longer eligible for waivers as of Jan. 1. The state granted an extension for the remaining 77 counties in North Carolina, where the policy goes into effect on July 1.
The rules also create more work for DSS. “Every month we have to manage a piece of paper,” to verify information, Becketts said.
Nearly 14,000 households (not individuals) in Durham County receive food stamps, according to 2014 census data. That is equivalent to about 14 percent of the total 113,500 households in the county. The median household income of such a household is $19,668 a year, far below the county median of $52,000.
Of these 9,700 families (again, different from households) receiving benefits, 23 percent of them had no workers in the past year. Half of the families had one worker; 27 percent had two.
Jacobs asked how DSS plans to verify if someone has a mental illness or has a substance abuse problem. In addition, DSS will have to verify the person is working or volunteering.
DSS will also need to connect people to resources—mental health, substance abuse, education, job training—to help keep them eligible.
“We can get something on letterhead,” Becketts said. “We’ve been asked by the state to be very broad. We need to be able to call and verify that an organization exists.”
Several companies, volunteer organizations and city/county departments attended a recent resource fair for the 2,700 people on the list. They have been contacted by mail and other outreach programs.
The workload at the Volunteer Center, which connects nonprofits and charitable organizations with volunteers, will likely increase. (We’re waiting on a formal statement from the center.)
Yet, it’s also unclear how for-profits and government agencies could “use” volunteers without running afoul of federal and state labor laws. It’s possible that less-than-honest companies could keep people—who would be desperate to keep their food stamps—as volunteers rather than hire them for a job.
DSS likely won’t know the full impact of the new rules until April. “We are fearful as people come into the system that number could grow,” Becketts said.