Less than three weeks before he leaves office, outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is refusing his replacement’s request to spare 31,000 of Louisiana’s poorest from a needless hardship.
Jindal moved in October to reinstate a 20-hour-per-week work requirement for the small subset of food stamps recipients in the state who have no dependants and are able-bodied enough to work. Governors are encouraged to waive those supplemental work rules when their states’ job markets are too weak, and Louisiana qualified for a waiver throughout 2016.
Governor-elect John Bel Edwards (D) plans to reverse Jindal’s decision when he takes office next month. But in the meantime, many people will lose their benefits at the turn of the calendar.
The rules in question are supplemental to the core work rules that all Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries face regardless of circumstance, such as the requirement to accept a job if they can find one. Jindal is one of a growing number of state leaders who imposed the additional rules even though federal economists say job markets are too weak to sustain them.
Jindal’s move doesn’t save the state money and doesn’t create jobs for SNAP recipients who want them, prompting Bel Edwards’ decision to seek a waiver once he is sworn in on January 10.
Jindal is refusing to cooperate in his final days in office, dooming an estimated 31,000 unemployed food stamps recipients to deeper poverty. “The best way to break the cycle of poverty is for individuals to get a job and get off of government assistance,” Jindal spokesman Mike Reed told the New Orleans Advocate in an email.
Louisiana was reportedly eligible for a statewide waiver from the rules at the time Jindal made his decision. The Food and Nutrition Service has not published a list of states that it deemed eligible for waivers in fiscal 2016 as it has done for some past years. But a significant portion of Louisiana is statistically considered to have a job market too rough to sustain the kind of strictures the outgoing Republican sought.
16 parishes and the city of Monroe are currently designated as “Labor Surplus Areas” by the federal Department of Labor for the rest of fiscal 2016, meaning there are too many people seeking jobs there for the quantity of jobs available. Those 17 pockets in Louisiana are automatically eligible for a waiver from the harsher work requirements Jindal wanted to impose through next September. And that number likely understates the total population Jindal was seeking to place in a hardship federal analysts deem undue.
Jindal is far from alone. Several other governors, mostly but not exclusively Republicans, have also declined waivers the federal government would have granted in recent years. Kansas, Ohio, Maine,Wisconsin, New Mexico, Indiana, Texas, Colorado, and Delaware have all taken similar steps in the past few years despite high unemployment. And as economic conditions steadily improve, more and more states will lose statewide eligibility and have to seek localized waivers instead for pockets of high unemployment. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities forecasts that a full million jobless people will lose SNAP next year as the waivers contract.
That trend may seem a positive one to many observers who worry that programs like SNAP breed dependency, and view the prospect of a benefit cutoff as a great motivator to seek out work for people who would otherwise rest on their laurels. But even if hard deadlines could create job opportunities out of thin air, the idea that adding the stress of hunger and additional bureaucratic hoop-jumping to a low-income person’s life will help them achieve independence and fiscal sustainability is hard to process.
The stress of poverty is proven to drag down individuals’ core neurological function. Living in the poorhouse has the same effect on the brain as pulling an all-nighter. Someone in such a circumstance already has ample motivation to go get paying work if any is available. Putting that same person in a position where they must not only seek a job that doesn’t exist, but prove they have attended a specific set of job training classes — which many states fail to provide to all who need them, due to funding constraints and scheduling strictures — seems unlikely to move them closer to the path out of poverty.
But it can certainly ruin their health. SNAP benefits are meager around the country, averaging about $258 per household per month nationwide and about $270 per household per month in Louisiana. Almost everyone who enrolls in SNAP also seeks help from charities in their area in order to put a reasonable amount of calories on their table each month.
When such families lose SNAP, they naturally put a heavier drain on that charitable infrastructure. When Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) took the same steps Jindal did last fall, food charities in his state went ballistic. One Milwaukee-based charity leader warned the move “will bankrupt our food banks.”
Furthermore, declining a waiver that the food stamps law is designed to provide doesn’t save these fiscally conservative politicians anything come budget time. Food stamps benefits are paid by the federal government, not state funds. The people evicted from the system likely impose a greater cost on state workers, if anything, because monitoring their compliance or noncompliance with the extra layer of work requirements Jindal and the rest seek demands more administrative time from state workers — and that’s the part of SNAP that does get pulled from state revenues rather than from D.C.