‘Welfare gerrymander’? Why food stamp work requirements are back on the table

A food pantry in Lancaster, Pa. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

When gerrymandering comes up in Pennsylvania, it usually pertains to the drawing of political maps to benefit one party over another.

But Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, sees it somewhere else as well.

At a Senate Appropriations Hearing in February, Argall used the term “welfare gerrymander” when questioning the Human Services department about why some childless food stamp recipients are exempted from federally mandated work requirements.

“If they live on this side of the welfare gerrymander, they don’t have to meet work requirements for [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits,” Argall said. “But an identical person who lives across the street still has to follow the work requirements.”

It’s not quite as snappy, but what Argall was referring to is actually called the Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents Waiver.

As part of sweeping changes to the welfare system in the ’90s, President Bill Clinton and Congress put a work requirement on food stamps for so-called able-bodied adults who don’t have children.

Under federal regulations, states like Pennsylvania can request a waiver for areas with high unemployment or a lack of jobs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture exempted 63 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties for 2019, as well as Lancaster city and Pottstown borough.

Roughly 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receive food stamps. Just nine percent of those people are adults under 50 without children, Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said at the hearing.

Even adults who don’t have children face “barriers to getting to work,” Miller said, from a lack of transportation to not having the right skills for a job. Work requirements don’t automatically resolve those issues.

“Those are all the things we’re focused on in terms of figuring out how we address those and how we get people to work rather than taking a more punitive approach,” Miller said.

The Wolf administration is in the midst of overhauling its jobs programs for poor parents on cash assistance, who are required to work under federal law. Those programs have failed to get most parents who participate into well-paying jobs.

“We’ve not been putting people on a path to long-term success,” Miller said at the hearing.

Changes on the horizon?

While Argall accused the Human Services department of data “manipulation” to create the map, the state did nothing wrong under federal regulations.

States can request an exemption for areas with unemployment at or above 10 percent or in places that lack sufficient jobs.

To do the latter, “states may submit evidence that an area has an average unemployment rate for a 24-month time period that is at least 20 percent above the national average for the same 24-month period.”

Pennsylvania selected March 2016 through February 2018 as its two-year period, according to the 2019 waiver submitted to the USDA — making 5.4 percent the minimum unemployment rate.

Forty-one Pennsylvania counties had an average unemployment rate at or above that number during that time period. So why are 63 exempt?

Because states are allowed to group counties that share a border together into one area. The combined unemployment rate for those 63 counties was 5.4 percent.

That’s a practice the Trump administration wants to curtail.

Under rules proposed by the USDA, waivers would be limited to areas with an unemployment rate 7 percent or higher. States would also be limited to grouping municipalities inside a federally defined labor market area.

“States have created questionable self-defined economic areas with gaping holes to leverage the flexibility of the regulations,” the USDA wrote in the proposed rules.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue referred to this practice as “gerrymandering,” as did Brandon Lipps, administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

Anti-hunger advocates in Pennsylvania are vehemently opposed to the rule change, which was first proposed as part of the 2018 farm bill.

“Study after study finds that when people have access to help that puts food on the table and provides health care they are better able to work and have higher earnings, which is better for our entire commonwealth,” Sheila Christopher, executive director of Hunger-Free Pennsylvania, wrote in a blog post. “No one should go hungry, especially when we have the resources to keep that from happening.”

The USDA is accepting public comment until April 2. The new rules would go into effect in October.

Pa. SNAP Waiver 2019 by Sarah Anne Hughes on Scribd

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