By Steve Spires
More than five years since Louisiana’s economy began recovering from the Great Recession, unemployment in the Pelican State remains stubbornly high. The state’s response? Cut off basic food assistance to 64,000 low-income adults.
Unemployment in Louisiana rose dramatically in 2014 after declining in the latter part of 2013. Though new jobs are being created, the number of people looking for jobs is growing even faster. Louisiana added 51,000 jobs since January 2013, but the labor force grew by 102,000 job seekers. Louisiana now has a higher unemployment rate than the nation.
When the job market is weak, many people don’t have enough to eat. Federal surveys show 17.6 percent of Louisianans lacked food security over the 2012-2014 period — a huge increase from the 11.8 percent who were food insecure a decade ago and higher than the 14.1 percent in 2009-2011. Nationally, the rate is 14.3 percent. Louisiana’s poverty rate in 2014 didn’t budge from the 2013 rate of 19.8 percent. Nearly one in five Louisianans still live in poverty.
Given these numbers, it should be common sense that many Louisianans still need a helping hand while they search for jobs. Yet the Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS) has decided to limit able-bodied, childless adults to just three months of basic food assistance during a three-year period if they aren’t working. An estimated 64,000 people could lose access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, formerly food stamps) next year because of the policy.
Some background: In 1996, Congress passed a law limiting non-disabled adults without children to just three months of SNAP benefits every three years, unless they were working or volunteering at least 20 hours a week. But the same law gives states the right to request a waiver for areas with high unemployment. Congress understood that people should be punished for bad conduct, not merely bad luck.
Most Louisianans would likely agree that it is unfair—not to mention uncompassionate—to deny food assistance to someone who is searching for a job, but is unable to find one because of a shortage of jobs. But that is exactly what the administration’s policy change is poised to do.
Louisiana is eligible for a statewide waiver from the time limit for 2016 based on the state’s high unemployment rate (6 percent in August, compared to 5.1 percent nationally), but the administration chose not to apply. The Louisiana Budget Project approached the Department with options for a partial waiver targeting the parishes with the highest unemployment rates, but the agency declined that option as well.
Food benefits are paid for with federal dollars and already very modest, about $194 per month. Denying these benefits to the unemployed will do nothing to create new jobs and will not save the state any money. What it will do is increase food hardship and the burden on local food banks struggling to serve the hungry. People who will be cut off from food assistance because of this rule are some of the poorest people in the state who, for the most part, are not eligible for other types of assistance. Now, it will be harder for them to eat.
Louisiana has received waivers in the past. At least a dozen states have applied for partial waivers in 2015, targeting the areas that need it most. Louisiana should join them and wait to reimpose the time limit until after enough jobs have opened up to bring the unemployment rate down. Short of that, the state should commit itself to providing a job training spot to every single person who wants one so that they can keep their food benefits while building their skills. Unfortunately, given budget constraints, that isn’t likely to happen.