KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Missouri is proposing to tighten eligibility for food stamps for thousands of adults who aren’t meeting work requirements.
The change sought by the Department of Social Services would roll back an expansion of the food stamp program that began in 2009, when Missouri had a higher unemployment rate because of an economic downturn.
Since 2009, Missouri has qualified for a waiver that allows able-bodied adult residents without children to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program despite failing to meet certain federal work requirements.
Missouri still qualifies for that waiver and probably would until the end of 2015. But the state Department of Social Services has proposed changing eligibility rules to waive the work requirements only in counties where the unemployment rate is higher than 10 percent. That would take the program back to the way it was prior to 2009, The Kansas City Star reported Tuesday.
Just four counties—Caldwell, Hickory, Reynolds and Shannon—had unemployment rates of 10 percent or more in August, according to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
In counties with unemployment rates lower than 10 percent, adults currently getting benefits would have three months to either find a job working at least 20 hours a week or enroll in a federally approved job training program. Adults who lose their jobs after the rule change would be eligible for food stamps for only three months out of every three years.
The department said in a written statement that the statewide waiver of work requirements was a temporary measure intended to lessen the impact of the recession.
“Now that the recession is over and the economy is growing,” eligibility requirements should return to previous standards, the department said.
State Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, said the department “is making the right call.”
“We need to make sure to cover those who need it the most and save waivers and extensions for the worst of times,” Kraus said.
But some advocates for the poor and hungry say now is not a good time to roll back the food stamp program.
“There are still too many people in Missouri who have to decide, ‘Do I pay the rent or buy food?”’ said Scott Baker, the director of the Missouri Food Bank Association. “The hunger problem is real and significant. The safety net is strained already, and I don’t know how the state’s food pantries would be able to meet additional demand.”
Missouri had about 915,000 people receiving food stamps in August. That’s down from a peak of nearly 962,000 in December 2011 but still well above the 724,000 recipients in August 2008. The federal government pays the full cost of the benefits while states administer the program.
Jeanette Mott Oxford, the executive director of the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, said she hopes the department will reconsider the change.
“Cutting people off the program will not suddenly create jobs for unemployed adults in Missouri,” Oxford said.
Missouri has about 58,000 able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 50 without dependents who receive federal food stamp benefits.
Kansas let a similar work waiver expire for food stamp recipients on Sept. 30. Oklahoma also declined to extend its waiver this year, and Wisconsin will take a similar step next July. Ohio kept the work waiver in place for just 16 of that state’s 88 counties.
Before the Missouri change takes effect, there will be a public comment period. The rule change then will be reviewed by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. The rulemaking process could take six months or more.