Food stamp recipients in North Carolina soon will lose benefits unless they prove they're working, volunteering or taking classes for at least 20 hours a week.
That federal requirement - which applies to adults under 50 who don't have children - was suspended in 2008 as the recession hit and unemployment rates rose. But the exemption ended Jan. 1 for 23 mostly urban counties across the state, including Wake, Durham and Mecklenburg.
While the 77 other counties are seeing a slower economic recovery and could continue the federal exemption, the state legislature acted last year to restore the work and education requirement statewide starting July 1.
The change affects 115,000 North Carolinians who will have to document work, volunteer or education activities or lose their food stamp benefits. Recipients can still get up to three months of benefits without meeting the requirement.
County social services departments are scrambling to make sure recipients know about the requirements and have opportunities to meet them, and some are creating their own volunteer programs.
"It's a little complicated, and they're going to need someone to help them understand and navigate it," said Regina Petteway, director of Wake County Human Services. "We're trying to ramp up our volunteer activity so that if people can't find employment, they can volunteer with the county."
Mecklenburg County is piloting an employment and training program with community agencies to help put food stamp recipients "in a better position to seek employment," said Men Tchaas Ari of the county's Department of Social Services.
State legislators took action in September to apply the requirements to all counties starting in July.
Sen. Norman Sanderson, a Republican from Pamlico County, said the change would push unemployed people on food stamps to look for work. "I think you're going to see a lot of them go and get that 20-hour-a-week job, or they're going to enroll in some sort of higher education to improve their job skills," he said before the September vote.
The legislature also voted separately to increase requirements for unemployment benefits. As of Jan. 3, unemployed people filing new claims must make five "contacts" with prospective employers or they won't receive an unemployment check. The job inquiries can be made online or in person.
"Short of telling them, 'You can sleep all week,' how much more reasonable can it get?" said Rep. Michael Speciale, a New Bern Republican, in August when that bill passed the House.
With the new unemployment and food stamp requirements hitting at the same time, opponents of the changes say they will harm the state's poorest residents.
"It's part and parcel of a ripping away of the safety net," said Rick Glazier, a former state legislator who now leads the N.C. Justice Center, a liberal advocacy group. "The legislature is going to have to revisit these decisions."
While state leaders can't
change the requirements for the 23 counties that no longer qualify for a federal exemption, Glazier said it's irresponsible to apply the same standards to the 77 counties that aren't recovering as well.
"There's no data that those 77 counties' economic conditions are likely to change," he said.
Alexandra Sirota, director of the Justice Center's Budget and Tax Center, said some people will struggle to meet the requirements because they don't have transportation or might not have volunteer opportunities available in their communities.
Nonprofits, she said, "very rarely get a 20-hour-a-week slot for anybody." And workforce training programs fill quickly.
"If they're in a rural place, it's hard for them to drive to the community college," she said.
People who lose food stamp benefits probably will turn to food banks, which expect more demand for emergency food supplies because of the change.
Jennifer Caslin, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina, said the nonprofit already serves food stamp recipients who need additional help.
"Our system has been stretched for a while, and this is going to stretch it even more," she said.
Social services agencies said they've shuffled staff to verify that food stamp recipients are meeting the new requirements.
Nancy Coston, director of Orange County Social Services, said her staff has to speak with 700 people who are affected there.
They have to determine "who's working, who's in school, and we can't tell that without interviewing them all," she said. "Many of them probably are not aware of this because the waiver has been in effect for a while."
The July 1 change for 77 counties was tucked into an unrelated immigration bill that passed the legislature in September. The changes for food stamp recipients were overshadowed by the outcry from immigration groups concerned about a ban on "sanctuary cities," where local governments choose not to enforce federal immigration laws.
Glazier said sponsors of the bill probably knew the immigration provisions would distract attention from the food stamp changes.
"Those who ran it very much calculated where it was being put," he said. "This is going to have even broader implications than the immigration provisions."
FOOD STAMP REQUIREMENTS RESUME
As the recession hit in 2008, the federal government dropped work requirements for food stamp recipients ages 18-50 who aren't disabled and don't have kids. While multiple factors are used to calculate benefits, they're typically available to single people making less than $15,000 per year.
The requirements will be restored starting this month in 23 mostly urban counties, and will resume throughout the state on July 1. Recipients must do one of the following to receive food stamps for more than three months:
▪ Work at least 20 hours a week.
▪ Attend education or workforce training programs for at least 20 hours a week.
▪ Do volunteer community service for at least 20 hours a week.