The General Assembly used a few of the last hours of the 2015 session to cut back how long unemployed North Carolinians in economically distressed counties can receive food assistance. Even though this weeks’ labor market data show that 9 out of 10 counties have more out of work people than job openings, the new rule would cut unemployed people off regardless of how hard it is to find work. The change could take food off more than 100,000 tables across North Carolina, and will pull money out of already struggling local economies, a doubly bad deal.
The one-sentence provision in the ratified bill (see section 16.a) permanently prevents the state from seeking to extend food assistance for people who can’t find work in their local economies, except in times of emergency. The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) allows states to temporarily waive a three-month time limit for unemployed childless adults who live in areas where few jobs are available.
Recognizing that cutting off food aid to areas where there aren’t enough jobs hurts entire local economies, North Carolina sought this waiver for 77 of our 100 counties earlier this year. If the Governor signs this measure and SB119 into law, the ban on the waiver would go into effect in July 2016. Without the modest support of SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), between 85,000 and 105,000 North Carolinians would be subject to the three month-time limit and potentially will not be able to purchase food at their local grocery stores, depressing consumer demand further and driving use of food banks already stretched to capacity.
The change is particularly hard to square with the fact that high unemployment is still a problem across much of North Carolina. This week’s local labor market data shows that 72 counties have actually seen their unemployment rates increase since January 2015 (see chart below). All but nine of the state’s 100 counties have more people looking for work than job openings, so there are going to be people who are desperately looking for a job but still can’t find one.
A total of 81 counties continue to have more unemployed workers than before the start of the Great Recession. Of those counties, 59 are could have received the waiver that was just eliminated, which is determined by counties’ unemployment rate relative to the national average.
While adults receiving SNAP and able to work can also engage in volunteer activities or skills training, these opportunities are hard to come by in many rural communities. In fact, the SNAP Employment & Training Program aimed at providing skills training for those receiving food assistance, offered fewer than 500 training slots statewide—that’s far less than the 85,000 to 105,000 people who will be cut off from food assistance after three months if they can’t find work or a volunteer opportunity.
The prohibition of a SNAP time-limit waiver could be even more broadly damaging for people and communities down the road. When the next recession hits the state cannot seek waivers to extend food assistance no matter how bad the economic crisis gets.
There are always decisions made at the end of legislative sessions that will need to be rethought, and that’s certainly the case here. Let’s just hope that we change course on this one before too many North Carolinians go hungry and too many local economies lose out.