Tennessee to reinstate work requirements for able-bodied food stamp recipients

(TENNESSEAN) -- Tennessee will reinstate work requirements for food stamp recipients a decade after they were eased during the height of the economic recession, Gov. Bill Haslam announced Monday. 

In most Tennessee counties, able-bodied adults without dependents will have to put in at least 20 hours per week on a job, an approved volunteer program or a qualified education or training program to get benefits. The measure goes into effect Feb. 1, but recipients will have 90 days from that date to comply with the new rules.

The requirements are expected to impact 58,000 of the approximately 1 million Tennesseans getting the grocery buying assistance, according to a news release. About 36,000 people who are able bodied and without dependents are already meeting the work requirements while getting food stamps. 

Letters informing recipients of the change are going out this week, said Danielle Barnes, commissioner of the Department of Human Services.

At the time the work requirement was eased in 2008, Tennessee and the rest of the country were in the grips of a recession, with high unemployment and limited job opportunities. 

"How do we with a straight face say, 'Oh, there's still extraordinary circumstances in Tennessee that still demand a waiver'? Absolutely not," Haslam said Monday.

"When we hit record low unemployment three months in a row, then it comes a time to look around and say, are we doing everything the right way? We looked at this and thought it's hard to justify a waiver," he said. 

Advocates for low-income Tennesseans, however, cautioned that the policy, unless it is carefully implemented, won't help people in rural areas, who, in turn, will turn to already overburdened food pantries for help.

"We support the governor's goal of enabling more people to be fully employed at good wages, and that's what SNAP families want, too," said Michele Johnson, executive director of the Tennessee Justice Center. 

"The fear has been, and remains, that unless this new policy is implemented carefully, local food retailers will suffer, church pantries will be overwhelmed and hunger will increase," she said. 

The work requirement will not apply to individuals living in 16 counties designated as economically distressed. Scroll below for a list of counties.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the formal name given to the food stamp program — gives eligible individuals and families debit cards to spend on groceries.

Haslam on Monday also announced separate plans to pursue fraud, waste and abuse among individuals receiving public assistance, singling out the food stamp debit cards as a focus. 

The Haslam administration also will pursue an increase in the monthly cash allotment to families on the public welfare program, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF.

The average family of three receives $185 of the public benefit, all entirely paid with federal dollars. That amount has not increased since 1996, according to the Department of Human Services. If an increase is enacted, the new monthly payout would be about $277 for a family of three.

The increased TANF benefit and efforts to combat fraud will require legislative approval.

None of the changes proposed to the federal programs on Monday will require additional state funding, Barnes said.

Republican lawmaker Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, praised Haslam's plan to reinstate work requirements, saying taxpayers "should not foot the bill for able-bodied recipients who are not trying to gain employment, which undermines the integrity and stability of the program."

Democrats, meanwhile, struck a more cautious note and urged Haslam to work closely with both parties on welfare reforms.

"The administration and the legislature need to work together to ensure that we are not harming Tennesseans that are in desperate need of help," said House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh.

And Democrat U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen in a statement noted that Memphis has the highest poverty rate of metro areas with at least 1 million people. Shelby County is among the counties that will reinstate work requirements for food stamp recipients.

"Memphians shouldn’t be allowed to go hungry, and while I am awaiting more details about how the Governor’s workforce requirement policy for food stamps will be implemented, I fear that’s what may happen," Cohen said.

Reach Anita Wadhwani at awadhwani@tennessean.com or 615-259-8092 and on Twitter @AnitaWadhwani.

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