CHICAGO — For at least a decade, most Illinois residents who receive food stamps have been exempt from a federal law that requires them to work or risk losing their benefits.
But a proposal that would make it harder to obtain those exemptions _ a move designed to encourage people to find jobs while unemployment is low _ has social service agencies in Illinois, like elsewhere, worried that the poor will only plunge deeper into poverty.
Some 38 million people nationwide use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, to buy groceries. Mostly, they are children, the elderly or people with disabilities.
But many other recipients _ about 8 percent _ do not have such disadvantages: they are considered able-bodied adults, under 50, who do not have children or other dependents. Federal law limits them to three months of food stamps during a three-year period unless they are working, volunteering or in job training for at least 80 hours a month.
Still, many states, including Illinois, have received annual waivers from those limitations for areas with higher unemployment rates.
That's what the Trump administration wants to change. The proposed rule change from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the SNAP program, would make it much harder for states to qualify for waivers from those work requirements.
Proponents argue it will encourage people to find jobs during this period of low unemployment, and they maintain that states have long been taking advantage of loopholes in the rules. But advocates for the poor say it's a mean-spirited attack on people who struggle to maintain stable employment.
The rule change would have a significant impact on Illinois, where the entire state, except for DuPage County, is currently exempt from the work requirements.
Of the 1.8 million people receiving food stamps in Illinois, about 162,000 are able-bodied adults without dependents, according to the Illinois Department of Human Services. That able-bodied group expands to some 400,000 people who enroll in SNAP in a given year as they cycle on and off the program.
While many of them work and would satisfy the criteria, some are in unstable jobs with insufficient hours. Others struggle to find employment given low levels of education, criminal backgrounds, transportation hurdles or undiagnosed mental or physical disabilities, social service groups say.
Curtailing the exemptions could wallop Illinois, where 77 percent of able-bodied, childless food stamp recipients do not meet the work requirements, the greatest share of any state, according to a new state-by-state analysis from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Mathematica.
People in that group tend to be poorer than other SNAP recipients, with an average income of $3,500 per year, and aren't eligible for other public aid offered to people with kids or disabilities, said Nolan Downey, a staff attorney in the economic justice team at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago.
"It's not as though these are folks that aren't working or don't want to work; the problem is that there are significant barriers," Downey said. "To rip this away from folks is cruel."
Tightening the rule
The rule change, which doesn't require approval from Congress, was proposed after last year's farm bill passed without a provision pushed by Republicans that would have expanded SNAP work requirements. It furthers President Donald Trump's goal to thin out the nation's welfare programs; his proposed budget this week included a $17 billion cut to SNAP next year and $220 billion over the next 10 years.
The change aims to tighten the waiver criteria "to ensure the waivers are applied only when there is clear evidence that the area has a lack of sufficient jobs," the Department of Agriculture said in its proposal. Currently 33 states, plus the District of Columbia, have full or partial waivers despite low unemployment rates, USDA said.
The most common criterion states use to obtain waivers is a local unemployment rate that was 20 percent above the national average for a 24-month period, and they can combine geographic areas in various ways to meet that threshold.
Illinois used that criteria to obtain its waiver last year, wrapping nearly all of the state into one area with a 5.5 percent unemployment rate, which was 20 percent higher than the national average of 4.6 percent. DuPage was cut out of the equation for the first time last year because its unemployment rate was too low and would have brought the state average down.
The USDA's proposal seeks to limit states' flexibility to combine areas and would prohibit waivers for areas with an unemployment rate below 7 percent, among other changes. Based on the new criteria, 90 percent of able-bodied, childless adults in the country would be subject to work requirements, the USDA said, up from 60 percent now.
The rule change would make nearly all of Illinois, including Cook County, subject to the work requirements, with only four downstate counties excepted, according to an estimate from the Greater Chicago Food Depository, based on 2017 and 2018 unemployment numbers. The exact impact will depend on individual counties' unemployment rates at the time of implementation.
USDA estimates 755,000 people across the country would lose food stamps for failure to comply with the work requirements, saving it $7.9 billion in SNAP payouts over five years. That assumes the rule has its intended effect of boosting compliance rates to 33 percent from 26 percent currently. If the change doesn't compel people to work more, 850,000 people would lose food stamps.
Supporters of the rule change say states have been abusing the waivers.
With unemployment low – 4.3 percent in Illinois as of January – people who can work should be encouraged to do so rather than being kept "trapped in dependency," said Jonathan Ingram, vice president of research at the Foundation for Government Accountability in Naples, Fla.
"There has never been a better time to move these folks off the sideline and back into the workforce," Ingram said. His group's goal, he said, is "to help as many people as possible experience the power of work and preserve resources for the truly needy."
Ingram said the proposed change is a positive step, though he had hoped the rule would go further and define areas based on commuting zones, so that even someone who lives in a high-unemployment county would be subject to work requirements if they were within commuting distance to an area with better job prospects.
"The jobs are there and employers are desperate for workers," he said.
Falling though the cracks
The Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP in the state, opposes the proposed change, saying it "would disqualify more than 160,000 Illinoisans from receiving the food assistance they depend on." However, it added, "we also recognize that some of our clients can and want to work" and is looking into ways encourage that.
Though unemployment is low overall, it remains high for certain populations, including people with less than a high school diploma and African-Americans, and many low-wage jobs are temporary or have unpredictable part-time hours.
Being enrolled in job training counts toward the work requirement, but the rule change is not accompanied by sufficient investment in job training programs, said Mari Castaldi, director of policy and advocacy at the Chicago Jobs Council, a nonprofit employment advocacy group.
Castaldi estimates that there are 20,000 slots in job training programs available across the state, which she says is not nearly enough to accommodate the SNAP recipients needing help.
"Our biggest concern is the drastic imbalance of what is available to these folks," she said. Searching for a job does not count toward the work requirement.
Conrad Watson, 29, who lives in Chicago's Uptown neighborhood, is among the SNAP recipients who could be at risk of losing benefits if the rule is imposed. He has been receiving SNAP for the past 10 years, since he graduated from an alternative high school in Bronzeville, though his $192 monthly benefit isn't always enough so he also frequents food pantries.
Sitting in a pew at a Ravenswood church waiting for the weekly food pantry to begin, Watson said he struggled in school and in job interviews. He has worked as a helper for his dad, a carpenter, and his grandmother, who had a job refilling vending machines, but otherwise has limited job experience.
Work requirements might force him to stay more focused, he said, but he worries about meeting 80 hours a month; when he had to do 20 hours of community service in high school he remembers that felt like a lot.
"It's kind of a scary thing," Watson said of the prospect of losing benefits if he doesn't meet the work hours. He wants to work, he added, and got his associate's degree from a community college four years ago, but is still trying to figure out his career path.
Adding to the complexity of the issue is that many SNAP recipients considered able-bodied have undiagnosed disabilities, said Dylan Prendergast, senior benefits and entitlement specialist at the Heartland Alliance. Getting an official disability designation can take years. A written statement from a health care professional can also suffice, but even that is challenging for someone without a steady medical provider, he said.
People have walked into Heartland's offices after not eating for five days because they lost their food stamps for failure to submit regular six-month redetermination forms, Prendergast said. That often happens with those who are homeless or are in unstable housing because they don't have a valid mailing address.
Adding work requirements on top of those stressors is unlikely to improve their chances of success, he said.
"It's very hard to find a job on your own and maintain it if you don't have a stable home and don't have anything to eat," Prendergast said.
Karen Hilberg, 33, never thought she would find herself trying to navigate the public benefits system. Hilberg was a teacher at a Chicago public high school when she suffered a brain injury at work in 2012, and says she has been unable to work since because of severe migraines and memory problems.
It took Hilberg four years and three appeals to get approved for Social Security Disability Insurance, and while she waited she was cycled on and off of food stamps depending on whether her family had lent her some money that month.
"There is such a sense that we are trying to scam people out of grocery money," said Hilberg, who lives in Logan Square. "I can't imagine why anybody would put their energy into that scam."
The Jane Addams Resource Corp., which runs a manufacturing job training program for dislocated workers and highly challenged job seekers, sees how hard people try to enter the workforce.
The program has more applicants than it can take, and those who do get a spot grapple with numerous challenges that make it hard to see it through, said Regan Brewer Johnson, executive vice president at the organization.
Sometimes they are returning from prison and struggling to reconnect with family, sometimes their lights are about to be turned off or they are being served with an eviction notice. Sometimes it's all of those things.
"When your life is falling apart at home it's really hard to sit in a welding booth and focus on that weld for eight to 10 hours a day," Brewer Johnson said.
Life without waivers
Some states that have voluntarily declined waivers from the three-month time limit have reported steep enrollment declines in SNAP as well as increases in work rates and wages. But the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank, has disputed those findings, calling the methodology flawed and misleading.
In DuPage County, which became subject to the food stamp time limit last April, community groups held workshops in the months leading up to the change to help people meet the 80-hour monthly work threshold or document disabilities so they wouldn't have to meet the requirements, said David Roth, executive director of the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform.
Still, more than 2,000 SNAP recipients lost food stamps because they didn't meet the work requirements, nearly half of those who were subject to them, according to the state. Some of those benefits were later restored when people supplied documentation.
Roth believes that most of those who lost benefits are in the workforce but just not working enough. He worries about how they're getting by without grocery money.
"They give up food to pay for the house or the car, or they give up the car to eat and then they can't get to work," he said. That's not only disruptive to their lives but to their employers, he said.
"We want to be able to equip people to move up the rungs," Roth added. "This policy change will have done the opposite."