By Margie Menzel
About 300,000 Floridians who qualified for food stamps now face a work requirement that went into effect Jan. 1— and the possibility of at least temporarily losing benefits if they don’t meet the guidelines.
As of the first of the year, able-bodied, childless adults ages 18 to 49 were required to work, get job training or volunteer 20 hours a week to receive food stamps through what is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Otherwise, they’re limited to three months of food assistance in each 36-month period.
Similar requirements also took effect in 21 other states. Gov. Rick Scott’s administration pointed to job opportunities in the state, but Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents a massive swath of rural communities, said food-stamp beneficiaries can’t find work in some areas.
“Especially in North Florida, in these rural counties that I represent, they have not felt this economic revival that people talk about,” Montford said. “Unemployment is still high. The jobs are not there. … The needs the SNAP program meets, I would say the needs in these rural counties are just as great as they were in 2009.”
The work requirement dates back to a 1996 welfare overhaul, but the federal government waived it in 2009 during the economic recession. Now, after unemployment rates have dropped, states are resuming the use of the work requirement.
The left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said 21 Florida counties have jobless rates high enough and sustained enough to qualify for an exemption from the work mandate from the federal government.
“A few Southeastern states are electing to re-implement the time limit statewide even though some or all of the state qualifies for a waiver,” the center reported last month, noting that 500,000 to 1 million people will lose their food stamps in 2016. “Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina will be particularly hard hit.”
Scott’s administration sees a brighter picture because of the economy, and people will be able to continue receiving food stamps if they meet the work requirements.
Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in an email that the state’s unemployment rate is at an eight-year low of 4.9 percent.
“No Floridian currently receiving benefits will lose their eligibility,” Glady said. “However, they must meet minimum federal requirements for work, volunteering or active job search activities.”
Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Morgan McCord echoed Glady and also said the state is trying to help people meet the requirements.
“In every county around the state, Florida’s CareerSource centers are working to help beneficiaries meet those requirements,” McCord wrote in an email. “Since January 1, 2016, 106,129 people have been placed into new jobs by the state’s 24 CareerSource locations.”
But others, such as Montford, say the state is diverse, and economic conditions vary.