Beginning February 1, 2016, a clock began ticking for certain recipients of SNAP (food stamp) benefits in New Jersey. Starting on that date, unless these recipients obtain work or enter a work-training program, they have three months of food stamp benefits remaining.
“It’s going to put a hardship on food pantries to keep supplied because now more people are going to have to depend on food pantries than ever,” said Deborah Oglesby, who coordinates food pantry outreach and food stamp enrollment services for Catholic Charities, Diocese of Camden. “It’s already difficult for food pantries to keep up with the demand.”
The recipients who fall into this category are ABAWDs, an acronym that stands for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents. They are between the ages of 18 and 49, have no dependents, and are not disabled. For this particular group, the new time limit means they can receive food stamp benefits for only three months within a three-year period if they fail to meet certain work requirements.
An ABAWD must work or participate in training or education activities for at least 20 hours a week to be eligible to receive food stamps beyond the three-month limit. In order for a household to be eligible for SNAP benefits at all, its total income must be at 130 percent of the federal poverty line, which comes to an annual income of about $15,000 for a single-person household.
The time limit is predicted to impact 30,000 able-bodied people who rely on food stamps in New Jersey (though advocacy and social service groups have estimated higher numbers). Unless they meet the work requirements, their food stamp benefits will end in April and they will not be eligible to receive food benefits again for three years.
A recipient of food stamps in New Jersey receives an average of about $116 per person per month, which is often inadequate to cover the costs of food. Food stamp recipients therefore already rely on food banks and pantries to cover the gaps. Those who fall into the ABAWD category and fail to find adequate employment within the next three months will have few options for food other than pantries.
A Struggle to Find Work in Areas of High Unemployment
In early January, Jeanetta Warren of Catholic Charities spoke at a press conference about the changes to SNAP at the State capitol hosted by the New Jersey Anti-Hunger Coalition, an advocacy group that works to raise awareness for and end hunger in New Jersey.
Warren, who directs Catholic Charities’ Atlantic County Economic Crisis Committee responding to the needs of laid off casino workers in and around Atlantic City, spoke in particular about the impact the time limits will have in the region she serves, where jobs are scarce and many who are employed have seen cuts to their hours. A part-time worker who works less than 20 hours per week could still see his or her food stamp benefits cut.
“Atlantic County has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and in the country. It is extremely difficult to find employment in Atlantic County; there are very few job opportunities. As a result, people are experiencing extreme financial hardship,” Warren said. “My clients would rather work than apply for assistance. They’re hardworking people. They never expected to be in these circumstances.”
The federal time limit and work requirements for ABAWDs are not something new. They date back to 1996 and what is known as the “welfare law” that established food stamps. But the law allowed states with high and sustained unemployment to waive the time limit.
In such areas, ABAWDs may be willing to work, but are unable to find employment because of poor economic conditions – a labor surplus in areas with few jobs. Atlantic City provides a good example of this kind of economically challenged area.
However, even though New Jersey no longer qualifies for a statewide waiver, many individual counties and municipalities in the state still have high enough levels of unemployment that they qualify for their own waiver. These regions fall under the federal category of Labor Surplus Areas: areas with an unemployment rate 20 percent higher than the national average for the last two years.
In the Diocese of Camden, these eligible areas include: Camden, Pennsauken, Vineland, Bridgeton, Millville, Egg Harbor Township, Galloway Township, the entirety of both Cape May and Salem counties, Monroe Township, Deptford Township, and Atlantic City.
Every county in the Diocese contains a labor surplus area that is eligible for a waiver of the time limit for unemployed ABAWDs. Applying for a waiver falls to the Governor’s office and no such waivers have yet been filed, or are likely to be filed, according to advocates.