Commentary – Just in time for the holidays: N.C.’s hunger problem is set to get worse

Commentary – Just in time for the holidays: N.C.’s hunger problem is set to get worse
November 19
00:00 2015

Tarza Mitchell

Guest Columnist

As many of us plan and prepare for family gatherings and celebratory meals in the upcoming holiday season, here’s a startling and disturbing fact to consider: Only a handful of U.S. states have higher hunger rates than North Carolina. The weak and uneven economic recovery hasn’t reduced hunger in our communities. The share of North Carolinians who don’t have a consistent supply of food has actually not budged since 2009, evidence of the state’s large job shortage and boom in low-wage jobs that make it difficult to buy food.

Next year, this harsh reality will get even worse for many North Carolinians who are very poor and struggle to find work in communities where job opportunities are scarce. That’s when, thanks to the recent action of the General Assembly and Governor McCrory, a three-month time limit for food assistance returns for childless, non-disabled adults.

As a point of reference, the average income of the people who will lose their food assistance is just $2,236 … per year.

In the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), there is a general three-month limit on benefits for childless adults aged 18-50 who don’t have a disability or aren’t raising children. And while those who work, volunteer, or participate in a qualified job-training program for 20 hours a week or more are also exempt from the three-month limit, meeting such a requirement is extremely difficult right now—especially in areas that have faced persistently high unemployment levels.

Given the poor economic climate, states can waive the work requirement for areas in which jobs are scarce. Unfortunately, with the recent passage into law of House Bill 318, North Carolina will unnecessarily restrict food aid for up to 105,000 childless adults who live in jobs-deprived areas—regardless of how hard these individuals are looking for work.

For 23 of the state’s 100 counties lucky enough to have improving labor markets, the time-limit will go into place next January. The remaining 77 counties qualified for a year-long waiver but the governor and legislature permanently banned state waivers after next summer. Now, the three-month time limit will return by July 2016 for those 77 counties.

Proponents of the waiver ban claim that the return of the three-month time limit will encourage people to work. But, of course, the SNAP time limit is not a test of one’s willingness to work. It applies regardless of whether these individuals are actually able to find employment or training opportunities. No matter how hard they’re looking for a job, if they don’t find one in three months, their food assistance is gone. Even if they are working for 19 hours a week, they would lose the help in putting food on the table as well.

Let’s put perspective on how difficult it truly is to find work in North Carolina. Right now, 80 of the state’s 100 counties have more jobless workers than job openings. Proponents of the SNAP waiver ban ignore this economic reality and the fact that job opportunities are especially limited for these individuals who tend to need retraining, industry credentials, or development of basic job skills like reading and writing.

The folks who lawmakers cut off from benefits in high unemployment areas include veterans, people who are homeless, and under-employed workers who simply can’t find a full 20 hours of work each week. Very few qualify for any other help besides food assistance.

What makes this policy change even harsher is that the state leaders who approved the waiver ban failed to develop a plan to provide skills training opportunities or alternative work options to all individuals subject to the time limit. Some states commit to providing every childless adult receiving food assistance with either a work slot or skills training. Sadly, however, North Carolina is not one of those states. There are less than 1,000 SNAP employment and training slots in our state but the policy change could make it harder to put food on the table for up to 105,000 low-income North Carolinians.

In addition to spreading hunger, the cutoff will harm local economies as well – both now and in the future. Food assistance provides jobless workers with the modest, but critical support to purchase food that in turn allows them to spend at local grocery stores and retail outlets. The stabilizing effect of food assistance has been well documented and supports economic stabilization in downturns and struggling communities.

The bottom line: At a time when jobless workers far outnumber available jobs in North Carolina, imposing further cuts to basic food assistance is the wrong approach to fighting hunger and will make life harder for North Carolinians who already face difficult tradeoffs between food and other essential needs.

The holiday season is not only a good time to reflect on our own personal journey but also the policy decisions that state leaders have made over the last year – especially the decisions that make vulnerable people worse off. Let’s hope the cutoff in food assistance is one that gets reconsidered very soon.

Tazra Mitchell is a policy analyst at the North Carolina Budget and Tax Center.

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