With unemployment lower than it has been in seven years, federal lawmakers are looking forward to the end of a waiver that gave single adults long-term access to food stamps even if they weren’t working.
When the waiver expires at the end of 2015, an estimated 1 million people — able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDS — will once again be limited to three months of assistance. The rollback could mean a savings of hundreds of millions of dollars in a program that has long been a target of conservatives.
But 60,000 of those people are believed to be military veterans, many of whom struggle to find work even in a tighter job market, and that concerns veterans advocates and some members of Congress.
“The idea that we would say to a veteran, ‘Thank you for your service to our country, but we don’t give a damn if you lose your SNAP benefit and can’t put food on the table’ … is unconscionable,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat and a long-time and vocal supporter of the SNAP program.
“Congress likes to get up and give patriotic speeches … but at this moment tens of thousands of veterans may lose their food [assistance] and there are a lot of members of Congress missing in action.”
The three-month limit is especially difficult for veterans, who often face more hurdles in transitioning into civilian life than non-veterans looking for employment.
Veterans aren’t always aware of what’s facing them when they come out, said Jeffrey Cathey, a retired Navy captain and head of Bank of America’s Military Affairs team, which focuses on hiring veterans and supporting military personnel. The bank recently hired two veteran snipers and the transition to corporate life was more complicated than just finding them cubicles, Cathey said.
“It’s a whole new world for them,” he said. “Veterans themselves often don’t realize they have skills that can be very valuable,” he said. ”It’s worth it to us to take the time to help them transition.”
And a lot of the veterans, especially the younger ones returning from Iraq or Afghanistan, are in particular need for help, McGovern added.
But the food stamp program has been a favorite target for some lawmakers in recent years. They point to the growing cost of the program, which now serves about 47 million Americans, as an example of federal spending run amok. Federal spending on SNAP rose from $17 billion 2000 to $74 billion in 2014, according to USDA data.
During negotiations over the 2014 farm bill, efforts were made to cut as much as $40 billion out of SNAP over a 10-year period. Half of the reduction would have come from eliminating state waivers for ABAWDs. Lawmakers pushed back on the cut and got it reduced significantly, fearing it would result in the collapse of the entire farm bill and its billions of dollars in subsidies, crop insurance and conservation programs for farmers.
But the focus on SNAP has not relented. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway has called for a two-year “full-scale review” of the program, simultaneously drawing attention to “a new group of healthy, working age recipients” who previously did not rely on SNAP.
In one of the first hearings called by Conaway’s committee in the 114th Congress, Rep. David Rouzer, a freshman Republican from North Carolina, expressed frustrations with the food stamp program. He recounted how one of his constituents was angry that he had to work for his groceries while “those who have not contributed quite as much to society … and they’re getting everything.”
The majority of food stamp recipients are employed, however. Fifty-eight percent of all households on food stamps with at least one working-age non-disabled adult were employed during the prior month, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal nonprofit, and 87 percent were employed during the prior year. The percentages were higher if the households had children.
Seven years ago millions of Americans were losing their jobs and staying unemployed while hiring had virtually frozen at the height of the last recession and Congress acted by approving legislation to extend unemployment insurance.
It was the Agriculture Department that interpreted the Unemployment Compensation Act of 2008 to allow states to lift the three-month SNAP limit for unemployed ABAWDS. According to the USDA, states could get a waiver for the restriction by showing unemployment rates of more than 6 percent. Previously, states would have to reach a much higher bar by showing unemployment rates were 20 percent higher than the national average in order to allow ABAWDs to receive SNAP.
As a result 28 states and Washington, D.C., qualified to waive the employment condition for childless adults to get SNAP. Before the law was in place only five states — Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Oregon and South Carolina — and D.C. qualified, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which often advises state governments on SNAP issues.
Now the reverse is expected to happen on Dec. 31 when the waivers are no longer easy for states to get. The number of states with full waivers is expected to drop to just four or five, causing about 1 million people to lose their SNAP benefits.
Meanwhile, some states have start paring down their SNAP rolls in advance of the Dec. 31 expiration date.
Scott Walker, Wisconsin’s governor and an expected Republican presidential hopeful, elected to begin the process of reimposing the three-month limit on food stamp benefits as a trial run for three counties more than a year ago. Walker expanded his effort to remove ABAWDs off FoodShare — what Wisconsin calls its SNAP program — statewide on April 1.
State FoodShare officials confirmed that although 700 people in the three-county pilot program did lose their SNAP benefits, 259 also gained employment and either kept the food stamps or no longer needed them as a result of a new employment and training program.
Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for Walker, stressed that Wisconsin residents aren’t simply being kicked out of SNAP without some assistance. Rather, the state will spend $37 million from 2015 through 2017 on employment training programs.
“No one will be kicked off the FoodShare program if they are actively participating in the FoodShare Employment and Training program or meeting the work requirement,” Patrick said.
“Gov. Walker is committed to helping Wisconsin residents move from dependence on government programs to the independence and dignity that comes with working hard to build a prosperous future of their own choosing,” Claire Yunker, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health services, explained further.
“The Governor’s FoodShare Employment and Training program reforms help FoodShare members, especially adults ages 19-49 with no minor children living in their home, to transition to the workforce by increasing opportunities for education, vocational training and active engagement in the workforce.”
The governor also laid out a plan during his 2014 re-election bid to begin drug-testing ABAWDs as a prerequisite to getting the benefits. Following up on Walker’s plan, 17 members of the Wisconsin State Assembly introduced a bill last week that would require drug testing for ABAWDs that participate in employment training programs that allow them to continue collecting SNAP benefits in lieu of a job.
Wisconsin is not alone. Indiana will also begin requiring on July 1 that ABAWDs find employment or enter a job training program to keep their food stamps for more than three months. Ohio cut its waiver for all but 16 of its 88 counties in 2013 and Maine ended its waiver statewide in October 2014.
Rep. Conaway said he is taking an active interest in what happens in the states that have elected to kick ABAWDs out of SNAP early.
“We’ll watch and see what happens in those states where they let those waivers expire,” the Texas Republican told POLITICO. “If [states] no longer qualify, they shouldn’t get the waiver and we’ll see what impact that has on folks that had previously been on [SNAP] under the waiver. Once they get past the three months, do they then go to work?”
But re-entering the labor force can be daunting, especially for some military veterans returning from years of service, sometimes in violent and bloody combat situations.
It’s why Rep. Collin Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat, believes that, while ABAWD waivers should be abolished, an exception should be made for veterans. Conaway said he is similarly concerned about how the expiration of SNAP waivers will hit veterans.
The coming cut to SNAP will hit veterans hard, said retired Army Col. Ben Margolius, who runs the Southern Tier Veterans Support group in upstate New York.
“It ain’t much,” Margolius said, referring to the average $127.73 received by SNAP beneficiaries on a monthly basis, “but it’s something. “We’re getting calls every day from veterans for help getting a job or getting food, some just returning from Afghanistan or Iraq.”
About 21 million veterans in America make up roughly 9 percent of the adult population, according to Labor Department data. While unemployment for veterans of all ages — estimated in 2014 to be 5.3 percent — is below the overall U.S. level, the rate shoots up to 7.2 percent for those who served on active duty after September 2011.
About 25 percent of veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan report problems being able to feed themselves or their families, according to a 2015 study published in Public Health Nutrition. An average of 900,000 veterans use SNAP in any given month, nationwide, according to a separate study by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Every time SNAP benefits are squeezed in the United States, Rich Synek said he sees more veterans line up at the two New York food pantries he runs. It was particularly bad after SNAP benefits were cut across America on Nov. 1, 2013, said the retired postmaster general and founder of the group Feed Our Vets. Congress had boosted the benefits when it passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, but the bill expired four years later.
“If it wasn’t for SNAP, I wouldn’t make it,” said Rodney Yearby, a retired staff sergeant in New York.
Yearby, who served in the Air Force for 12 years and suffered a head injury after leaving in 1996, said he gets $165 per month in SNAP benefits. Feed our Vets helped him sign up for SNAP, find a place to live and apply for assistance from the federal Supplemental Security Income program.
It can be easy to overlook veterans, said Bank of America’s Cathey.
“They’re not really that well known in the communities,” he said. “People say ‘support the vets’ and ‘thank the troops’ and stuff like that, but the touch points aren’t there like they used to be and so people don’t really know.”