Caught between a rock and a hard place

Sophia Tareen

CHICAGO (AP) – Having food stamps offers Richard Butler a stability he’s rarely known in his 25 years. He was in state custody at age two, spent his teen years at a Chicago boys’ home and jail for burglary, and has since struggled to find a permanent home.The USD194 deposited monthly on his benefits card buys fresh produce and meat.

“It means the world to me,” said Butler, who shares a one-bedroom apartment with two others. “We can go without a lot of things, like phones and music. We can’t go without eating.”

But that stability is being threatened for people like Butler, who are able-bodied, without dependents and between the ages 18 and 49. New Trump administration rules taking effect April 1 put hundreds of thousands of people in his situation at risk of losing their benefits. They hit particularly hard in places like Illinois, which also is dealing with a separate, similar change in the nation’s third-largest city.

From Hawaii to Pennsylvania, states are scrambling to blunt the impact of the new rules, with roughly 700,000 people at risk of losing benefits unless they meet certain work, training or school requirements. They’ve filed a multi-state lawsuit, expanded publicly funded job training, developed pilot programmes and doubled down efforts to reach vulnerable communities, including the homeless, rural residents and people of colourr.

Social service agencies say they won’t be able to fill the gap, making increased homelessness and more hospital visits among the biggest concerns. Experts say they’ve already seen troubling signs in some states.

Richard Butler poses for a portrait in an apartment that a friend is letting him and his fiancé live in on Chicago’s Souths. PHOTOS: AP
Chef Samara Henderson (L) works with trainee Anthony Redmond at Inspiration Kitchens in Chicago

“This is a cascading effect,” said Robert Campbell, managing director at Feeding America, a network of hundreds of food banks nationwide. “It will increase demands on the emergency food system, food banks and pantries.”

Currently, work-eligible, able-bodied adults without dependents under 50 can receive monthly benefits if they meet a 20-hour weekly work, job training or school requirement. Those who don’t are are limited to three months of food stamps over three years.

However, states with high unemployment or few jobs have been able to waive time limits. Every state except Delaware has sought a waiver at some point, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The new rules make it harder to get waivers. They’re the first of three changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, or SNAP, which feeds 36 million people nationwide. The Trump administration has touted the change as a way to get people working and save USD5.5 billion over five years. Able-bodied adults without dependents are seven per cent of SNAP recipients.

But states fighting the change say that argument is misguided.

“Not everyone is in a position to get a job tomorrow, and taking away access to food is only going to make that more difficult,” said Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller. “We’re going to have more hungry people in the state.”

Pennsylvania – where as many as 100,000 people could be affected – is working with social services groups to create 30 job training programmes for SNAP recipients. However, experts say work opportunities are limited.

More than half of SNAP recipients have a high school diploma, but about one-quarter have less, according to the Centre on Budget and Policy Priorities. Available jobs are more likely to have low pay, shifting schedules that might not offer enough qualifying hours and few benefits like paid sick leave.

“Work requirements really don’t really do much to affect the rate at which people are working,” said Elaine Waxman at the Urban Institute, a nonprofit research organisation. “If people can work and consistently, they pretty much are.”

Meanwhile, Inspiration Corporation, a nonprofit, runs a training kitchen and restaurant out of a converted Chicago warehouse. It has proposed increasing its number of spots for SNAP participants from 35 to 45. On a recent day, fractions used in measuring were scrawled on a white board near the kitchen, which serves Southern-inspired fare like grits.

Trainee Anthony Redmond, 44, started receiving food stamps when he was released from prison last summer. With the help, he was able to leave a halfway house and find his own place. After the training, he hopes to find employment and keep his benefits.

He dreams of opening a fleet of food trucks. “If you take something that a person really needs and depends on and they don’t have any other life skills to get a job, to benefit their family,” he said, “it’s just going to cause trouble”.