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.