Up to 140,000 able-bodied Illinoisans may need jobs to get food stamps in 2020

Up to 140,000 able-bodied Illinoisans may need jobs to get food stamps in 2020

Just Cook County food stamp recipients were facing work requirements Jan. 1 if they were under age 50, able-bodied and had no dependents. Now the rules will apply throughout Illinois starting April 1.

As many as 140,000 Illinois food stamp recipients who are younger, able-bodied and don’t support children will either enter the work force or potentially be disqualified from receiving aid in 2020.

Initially about 50,000 able-bodied Cook County residents receiving benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, were subject to the tightened rules starting Jan. 1 because unemployment was so low, according to the Chicago Tribune. The Trump Administration announced Dec. 4 it was making it harder for states to get waivers to the work rules, which Illinois has obtained since the rules started in 1996. By April 1 as many as 140,000 of the state’s 1.8 million SNAP recipients may need to work, volunteer or receive job training for at least 80 hours per month to continue receiving food benefits.

SNAP recipients “who are able-bodied, under the age of 50” and do not have any dependents at their home will face the work rules. Among those recipients, benefits will be limited to three months in a three-year period unless they maintain employment.

These changes differ slightly from the ones proposed by the Trump Administration in January, which would have only affected Illinois SNAP recipients in Cook County.

The majority of Illinois’ 1.8 million SNAP enrollees are either children, elderly or disabled, according to the Tribune. Those participants will not be affected under the new rules. Nationwide, the rules will require work from about 688,000 of the 36 million total SNAP recipients, saving as much as $5.5 billion over five years.

Illinois’ unemployment rate fell below 4% in September for the first time in decades, signaling an increase in participation in the state’s labor force even as the size of that labor force continued to shrink. Despite declining unemployment, Illinois has had a higher percentage of its population dependent on food stamps than any neighboring state at 14%, according to the most recent data from August 2019.

Illinois typically requested a waiver from the federal government’s work requirements for the entire state. Currently, federal law disqualifies an area from those waivers when their unemployment rate falls within 20% of the national average over a two-year period, according to the Tribune.

The new rules lower that threshold, allowing work requirement waivers only for areas that have sustained an average unemployment rate 6% higher than the national average over two-year period. Cook County’s two-year average unemployment rate is currently 3.9%, just under the national two-year average of 4%.

In 2018, DuPage County became the first Illinois county to lose the ability to waive federal work requirements due to low unemployment. A representative for the DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform told the Tribune in November that an estimated 2,000 DuPage recipients lost their benefits after that change. He attributed that outcome to insufficient work hours and barriers to employment for recipients with criminal backgrounds and low educational attainment, among other challenges.

While it’s likely the most effective reforms for increasing access to higher education and vocational training must come at the federal level, state leaders in Illinois could do more to rehabilitate those with criminal records and help them re-enter the workforce. A sensible first step would be to reduce the length of time the state requires nonviolent ex-offenders to wait before petitioning the courts to have their criminal records sealed.

Another factor limiting SNAP recipients’ job prospects could be lack of economic opportunity. While higher labor force participation is worth cautious optimism, the state’s tepid jobs growth is concerning. Illinois’ heavy tax burden and unfriendly regulatory environment have discouraged investment in the state, resulting in a rate of job creation – and creation of new employers – that has trailed most of the nation.

While business creation rates across the country have been dropping, the decline has been even more pronounced in Illinois. This is especially true of small businesses – or businesses with 50 employees or fewer – which are Illinois’ leading source of job creation.

Since 2011, the U.S. has created small businesses at a rate of 8.3%, more than double the rate of Illinois’ statewide rate of 3.9%. In 2018 alone, Illinois shed 4,666 small businesses, a 2.9% decline.

Some argue that work requirements for food stamp recipients can encourage valuable training that ultimately allows them to achieve economic mobility. But ultimately, it’s the job of lawmakers in Springfield to foster a climate that creates jobs, rather than chases them away.

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