JEFFERSON CITY — Thousands of Missourians risk losing access to food stamps next year under a rule change proposed by Gov. Jay Nixon.
By JASON HANCOCK
The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent
Proponents of the change point to it as a sign that the state’s economy is improving. They argue it is time to tighten up eligibility requirements of a program that has grown exponentially more expensive over the last decade.
Critics of the plan say the state still faces a fragile job market. They say turning away the federal money wouldn’t help those in need find jobs, but it would increase the burden on local food banks and charities that already are stretched thin.
“There are still too many people in Missouri who have to decide, ‘Do I pay the rent or buy food?’” said Scott Baker, the director of the Missouri Food Bank Association. “The hunger problem is real and significant. The safety net is strained already, and I don’t know how the state’s food pantries would be able to meet additional demand.”
Since 2009, Missouri has qualified for a waiver that allows able-bodied adults who are unemployed and have no children to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP or food stamps, despite failing to meet certain work requirements.
If Missouri voluntarily allows the statewide waiver to expire, it would become the first state with a Democratic governor to do so.
There currently are about 58,000 able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 50 without dependents who receive federal food stamp benefits in Missouri. The federal government pays 100 percent of food stamp benefits while states administer the program.
Missouri still qualifies for the statewide waiver and probably will until the end of 2015. However, the state’s Department of Social Services has proposed changing eligibility rules to only allow the waiver of the work requirements in counties where unemployment is higher than 10 percent. That was the rule in place prior to the 2009 economic recession.
According the state Department of Labor & Industrial Relations, only three rural counties had unemployment higher than 10 percent in August — Caldwell in northwest Missouri, Reynolds in southeast Missouri and Shannon in south-central Missouri.
The waiver, which was included in the federal welfare reform legislation passed in 1996, was designed to give states flexibility in times of insufficient jobs and high unemployment, but it never was intended to be a permanent solution, said state Sen. Will Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican.
“The Department of Social Services is making the right call,” Kraus said. “Our inability to end temporary programs and waivers is one of the reasons the federal government is struggling yet again with the debt limit. We need to make sure to cover those who need it the most and save waivers and extensions for the worst of times.”
In counties with unemployment rates lower than 10 percent, an adult currently getting benefits would have three months to either find a job working at least 20 hours a week or enroll in a federally approved job training program. Otherwise, he or she would no longer receive food stamps.
Adults who lose their jobs after the rule change would be eligible for food stamps for only three months out of every three years.
Unemployment rates in Missouri’s most populous areas are low enough that they would not currently qualify for a waiver. In August, unemployment stood at 8.1 percent in Jackson County and 9.9 percent in the city of St. Louis. Forty-four counties have unemployment figures higher than the statewide rate of 7.2 percent.
A spokeswoman for the governor declined requests for an interview about the proposed change, directing all questions to the Department of Social Services.
In a written statement, the department said the statewide waiver was a temporary measure intended to lessen the impact of the recession.
“Now that the recession is over and the economy is growing,” eligibility requirements should return to previous standards, the department said.
Jeanette Mott Oxford, the executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, said she hopes the Nixon administration will rethink the change. The problem is a lack of jobs, not a lack of willingness to work, she said.
“Cutting people off the program will not suddenly create jobs for unemployed adults in Missouri,” Oxford said. “The inability to find work stems from high unemployment and the very slow recovery of the labor market.”
The average income of jobless childless adults nationally is 22 percent of the federal poverty level, or $2,500 a year. According to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, nearly one in six Missourians is food insecure, meaning that person is concerned about not having enough food.
A U.S. Census Bureau report released last month found that food stamps had kept about 4 million people nationwide above the poverty level and had prevented millions more from sinking further into poverty.
Baker said Missouri’s food banks have increased distribution 20 percent in last two years but still aren’t meeting existing demand. Now is not the time to turn down resources the state could use to help alleviate hunger, he said.
“People say the economy is turning around,” Baker said. “We’re not seeing economic improvement in the food pantries. We’re not seeing decrease in demand. There are still people who are coming into food pantries for the first time ever.”
Until this year, 45 states waived the time limit for food stamp eligibility.
Kansas officials decided to let the state’s federal waiver expire Oct. 1. The change was expected to affect 20,000 residents. The state’s Department of Children and Families said the change was “an effort to encourage employment over welfare dependency.”
Oklahoma also declined to extend their waiver this year, and Wisconsin will take a similar step next July. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, kept the waiver in place in 16 of that state’s 88 counties.
Five states — Delaware, New Hampshire, Utah, Vermont and Wyoming — have never used the waiver or did not qualify for it.
Oxford said the most pressing concern about the potential change is that Missouri’s decision comes when food stamp benefits for all recipients are set to decline Nov. 1, when federal stimulus money comes to an end. That will result in the average benefit in Missouri dropping from about $1.40 per person, per meal to around $1.30 per person, per meal, she said.
Those benefits could be cut even deeper depending on actions playing out in Washington. The U.S. House voted last month to cut $39 billion from the food assistance program over 10 years and eliminate states’ ability to use waivers for eligibility standards. The U.S. Senate approved smaller reductions.
With all the possible cuts, “we have a ‘hunger perfect storm’ brewing,” Oxford said.
There will be a monthlong window for the public comment on the proposed changes, as well as a public hearing. It then will be reviewed by the legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, which could also hold its own hearings. From start to finish, the rule-making process could take six months or more.
Nixon’s administration originally sought to change the rule immediately, a move that would have altered eligibility for food stamps Oct. 1. The proposal was filed with the secretary of state’s office but quickly withdrawn. The Department of Social Services did not elaborate on the reason behind the switch in strategy.
Baker says he’s happy, though, that the public will get an opportunity to weigh in.
“We still have time to communicate to the (Nixon) administration the scope of the need here in Missouri,” he said.