Food Assistance Cuts Affecting Up To 1 Million Impoverished Americans Ignored By Network Evening News

››› ››› DANIEL ANGSTER

A Media Matters study of network evening news found that the evening news has failed to report that 1 million low income Americans are at risk of having their food assistance benefits severely restricted following 22 states' reinstatement of work requirements as a condition of eligibility on January 1. While the cuts are aimed at able body adults with no dependents, experts agree these individuals are "very poor" and qualify for very few alternative means of assistance.

On January 1, 22 States Reinstated Requirement That Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents Have To Work In Order To Be Eligible For Food Assistance Benefits

1996 Law Limited The Ability Of "Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents" To Collect Food Assistance. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), passed by Congress in 1996, limited able-bodied adults without dependents' (ABAWD) ability to collect Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits unless they met certain work-related requirements:

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA) limits the receipt of SNAP benefits to 3 months in a 36-month period for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) who are not working at least 80 hours per month, participating in qualifying education and training activities at least 80 hours per month, or complying with a workfare program. Individuals are exempt from the time limit if they are:

  • Under 18 or 50 years of age or older,
  • Responsible for the care of a child or incapacitated household member,
  • Medically certified as physically or mentally unfit for employment, pregnant, or
  • Already exempt from the general SNAP work requirements. [United States Department of Agriculture, accessed 1/21/16]

In 2008, The Recession Triggered States' Ability To Provide Waivers To The SNAP Work Requirements. According to the National Journal, the PRWORA allowed for states to waive work requirements when the unemployment rate rises above certain thresholds, a procedure many states undertook during the recession:

These allowances come in the form of waivers that allow states to provide low-income residents access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, without requiring that they work at least 20 hours a week. A 1996 federal welfare-reform bill introduced these waivers; states are only eligible to apply for one if they meet certain criteria for need, such as having an unemployment level above 10 percent or experiencing a low and declining employment-to-population ratio.

The recession that began in 2008 was the first event that pushed many states beyond the unemployment cutoff. A large number chose to take the waiver in order to ease the burden of the economic downturn on residents: At the beginning of fiscal 2014, 42 states and the District of Columbia were implementing a partial or complete waiver. [National Journal, 8/7/14]

22 States Reinstated Work Requirements For Able Bodied Adults As Of January 1, 2016. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts' Stateline, on January 1, 2016 22 states reinstated work requirements for ABAWDs as a condition to receive SNAP benefits for a period longer than three months within a 36 month time frame:

Hopgood lost her benefits when Wisconsin reinstated work requirements for food stamps. With 22 new states reinstating the requirements as of Jan. 1, another 500,000 or more people could find themselves in her situation by spring.

The reinstated requirements are only for able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who have no young children living with them. If they do not work 80 hours per month, or take part in 80 hours of a qualified job-training or educational program, they can only receive food stamp benefits for three months out of every three years.

[...]

Now, all but seven states -- California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, Rhode Island and South Carolina -- and the District of Columbia have work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents in at least part of the state. For work requirements to be waived, unemployment must be higher than 10 percent, or states must prove a lack of jobs. [Stateline, 1/19/16]

Nightly Network News Has Ignored Reinstated SNAP Requirements

National Network News Programs Failed To Mention The Reinstated SNAP Work Requirements. According to a Media Matters' analysis, the major networks' evening news programs -- ABC's World News Tonight, CBS' Evening News, NBC's Nightly News and the PBS' NewsHour -- aired no coverage of the reinstated SNAP work requirements between December 1 (one month before the requirements took effect) and January 26.

Work Requirements Will Strip Benefits From Needy Americans

CBPP: "Affected Unemployed Childless Individuals Are Very Poor; Few Qualify For Other Help." According to a January 21 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) report, many of the ABAWDs affected by the reinstated SNAP work requirements have an average income of "about $2,000 per year for a household of one in 2015" which is significantly lower than the average SNAP recipient (emphasis added):

Unemployed, nondisabled childless adults on SNAP tend to be very poor.USDA data show that while these individuals participate in SNAP their gross income averages 17 percent of the poverty line -- about $2,000 per year for a household of one in 2015 -- compared to gross income of 57.8 percent of the poverty line for the average SNAP household overall. Over 80 percent of the people subject to the three-month limit live in households with incomes below half of the poverty line (see Figure 3). Some 97 percent live in households below 100 percent of the poverty line.

[...]

Other kinds of assistance won't replace the lost SNAP benefits. SNAP is the only benefit available to most unemployed workers without children. All but a few states have eliminated their state-run cash assistance programs for poor childless adults (except, in some states, for people with a disability). Most unemployed workers on SNAP either don't qualify for unemployment insurance or any other federal or state cash or food assistance benefit or are long-term unemployed workers who have exhausted their unemployment benefits. [CBPP, 1/21/16]

CBPP: Southern States Will Be Hit Particularly Hard By Re-Implementing Work Requirements. According to the January 21 CBPP report, up to one million SNAP recipients had their benefits cut off as of January 1. Southern states including "Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee, will be particularly hard hit" by the reinstatement of ABAWD work requirements as a condition for SNAP benefits:

In 2016, the time limit will be in effect in more than 40 states. In 23 states, it will be the first time the time limit has been in effect since before the recession. (See Figure 1.) Of these states, 19 must re-impose the time limit in at least part of the state; another four are electing to re-impose the time limit despite qualifying for a statewide waiver from the time limit because of continued high unemployment.

As a result, at least 500,000 and as many as 1 million SNAP recipients will have their benefits cut off in 2016. A few southeastern states that are electing to re-implement the time limit statewide even though some or all of the state qualifies for a waiver, such as Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee, will be particularly hard hit. In most of these states the time limit took effect in January 2016 and the first people will be cut off three months later, in April. [CBPP, 1/21/16]

Barriers To Employment Have Forced People Out Of The SNAP Program Before Finding Work. As a January 12 Governing magazine article explained, in states where work requirements were reinstated prior to this year, there is evidence that barriers to employment such as lack of access to transportation and other variables not considered by the SNAP requirements has resulted in low income individuals being dropped from the program before finding work:

While some governors, such as Maine Gov. Paul LePage and Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback, have said that the time limits spur people to find work, a study by the Ohio Association of Foodbanks casts some doubt on that assertion. The association assessed more than 4,800 able-bodied adults without dependent children in Franklin County between 2013 and 2015 and found that these people faced physical, mental and systemic barriers to employment. Even though welfare agencies had identified these recipients as able-bodied adults, a portion of them really couldn't work. More than 12 percent had a self-reported disability, such as back and shoulder injuries, and almost 10 percent had a mental limitation, such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.

The Ohio report also noted that this population faced other system-related barriers to employment. About 60 percent didn't have a driver's license and 40 percent said they didn't have access to reliable transportation. About 34 percent said they were last employed at least two years ago, which can be a disadvantage on job applications. And more than 35 percent had a felony conviction, another deterrent to hiring for some prospective employers.

States that have already reimposed the time limits, such as Maine, Oklahoma and Kansas, have seen SNAP caseloads drop as people couldn't meet the work requirement and lost benefits. While governors in those states say that people are leaving the food assistance program because they found jobs, data from the Ohio Association of Foodbanks suggest very few actually leave for that reason. When food bank staff followed up with a random sample of able-bodied adults without dependent children who had stopped receiving benefits, only a quarter said they exited because they found work. A higher percentage, about 40 percent, said they were kicked off the program for not meeting the weekly work requirement. [Governing, 1/12/16]

NYT: States Are Not Required To Provide Job Training To ABAWD SNAP Recipients Before Cutting Off Benefits. As The New York Times reported on April 11, 2015, the Department of Agriculture will supply states with funds to provide job training to ABAWDs whose benefits could be cut due to work requirements, however not all states choose to accept the funding:

The re-emergence of the work requirements has stoked discontent among advocates for the poor and hungry who say the law is unfair because states are not required to offer food stamp recipients a work assignment before cutting them off, and because searching for a job does not necessarily count. The Agriculture Department makes money available to states willing to pledge work assignments to food stamp recipients, but many states do not take advantage of it. Recently the department announced that it had provided $200 million to 10 states for pilot programs that would help people find jobs and move them off food stamps.

"If the job situation in the area is a really a tough situation, this is an incredibly harsh provision," said Ellen Vollinger, the legal and food stamp director for the Food Research and Action Center. "There's going to be harm, and it's going to show up in greater hunger, probably in greater instances of health problems and could show up in greater instances of homelessness." [The New York Times, 4/11/15]

NYT: Reinstatement Of Work Requirements Has Strained Food Banks As Demands For Their Services Grow Rapidly. The New York Times reported that in states that have already reinstated ABAWD work requirements for SNAP benefits, charities focused on alleviating hunger such as food banks are being strained as they try fill the gap as thousands of people lose their benefits:

Around the country, food pantry directors are girding for an influx of hungry adults as the work requirement re-emerges. In Wisconsin, the time limit kicked in statewide on April 1, and the independent Legislative Fiscal Bureau there has estimated that 31,000 people could lose their food stamps.

"We're going to run out of food," said Sherrie Tussler, the executive director of the Hunger Task Force Milwaukee. "It's going to cause wide-scale hunger here in Milwaukee, and we're in trouble."

[...]

In Kansas, the number of childless, able-bodied adults receiving food stamps dropped by 15,000 in the month after the waiver expired in December 2013, compared with the roughly 3,000 to 4,000 people who had been leaving the program monthly before the change, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

In some states, advocates have sounded the alarm about the administration of the change. After Minnesota became ineligible for a statewide waiver at the end of 2013, Colleen Moriarty of Hunger Solutions was alarmed, she said, when more than twice as many adults as predicted lost food stamps. And legal advocates in Ohio filed a civil rights complaint after the state declined the waiver for 2014 for all but 16 rural counties, noting that cities with large populations of poor minority residents were not in counties that received the waiver. [The New York Times4/11/15]

Methodology

Media Matters searched Nexis transcripts of nightly news segments (ABC's World News Tonight, CBS' Evening News, NBC's Nightly News, and PBS' NewsHour) for mentions of "SNAP," "supplemental nutrition assistance program," "food stamps," "food assistance" or "welfare" from December 1 (one month before the reforms took effect) until January 26.

Posted In
Poverty, Food Insecurity
Network/Outlet
PBS, CBS, NBC, ABC
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