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No Food Stamps for the Unemployed? NYC's Been There, Done That, and Its Not Pretty

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Written by Maggie Dickinson

Last week, House Republicans passed a food stamp bill that would immediately cut between 2-4 million unemployed Americans off the food stamp rolls by ending waivers to the program's work requirements. Work requirements barring able-bodied, childless adults from the program unless they were employed part-time were introduced into the food stamp program in 1996 as part of welfare reform. At the time, Congress also established a waiver for states with high unemployment rates. These waivers, meant to protect the unemployed in times of economic crisis, have benefited millions of Americans who lost jobs during the recession.

In New York City, the Bloomberg Administration has never accepted these waivers, continuing to enforce work requirements both before and during the recession. Much like the administration's stance on finger printing food stamp applicants, this position on work waivers makes New York City a national outlier. It also makes New York City a test case for what will happen nationally if House Republicans succeed in revoking these waivers for the states.

I worked in a food pantry doing food stamp outreach from 2010 - 2012 as part of my dissertation research. I helped pantry clients with their food stamp applications and interviewed pantry directors around the city who were doing similar work. The rule on the books was that Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents (so-called ABAWDS) could only receive benefits for three months in any three-year period unless they worked or were enrolled in a Work Experience program. When I first began this work, however, the rule was not widely enforced.

Then, in the summer of 2011, something changed. People began coming to me with letters saying they had to report for a work assignment or they would lose their benefits. HRA had begun to systematically enforce these work restrictions, sending out letters to many of the 76,000 New Yorkers categorized as ABAWDs. Other food stamp outreach workers reported that the trickle of people coming in with ABAWD letters had become a flood. At the time, the unemployment rate in the city was still hovering around ten percent.

Asking unemployed people to literally work for food adds insult to the injury of mass unemployment. Most of the people I assisted decided to forego benefits rather than be subject to what they saw as a demeaning work assignment. But pride was not the only consideration.

One of the criticisms of the House Proposal is that it demands people work, but it does not provide funding for training and job placement programs. It is unclear, however, that adding funding for these programs would actually benefit the unemployed.

Work Experience Programs in New York City do little to move unemployed people into real jobs. Placements in city agencies, like sanitation, the parks department and even HRA are meant to teach the unemployed "about the world of work while they perform tasks that are useful to the sponsoring agencies" according to one HRA document. HRA officials readily acknowledged that, "there are definitely people who are over-qualified for these assignments." City hiring freezes mean that no one is being hired. In fact, programs to move welfare recipients into permanent jobs, like the Parks Opportunity Program and Transitional Jobs programs have been regularly threatened by budget cuts.

Many of the people who lost their jobs in the recession have long work histories. As one man who had lost his job as a gypsy cab driver told me, "I don't need them to teach me how to look for work." Training and job placement programs are only effective if there are jobs to move people into. People who receive ABAWD letters were well aware that New York City's WEP program was not a realistic path to employment.

Cutting people's food stamp benefits while they look for work in an economy that has little work to offer does more than create hunger and hardship for the unemployed. By adding additional bureaucratic hurdles, it makes applying for food stamps more onerous and difficult for everyone. It also puts additional strains on homeless shelters, food pantries and elderly parents and family members who are left to pick up the slack.

Electing a new mayor means New York City is poised to turn the page on twelve years of unnecessarily harsh food stamp administration. As a City Council member, Bill DeBlasio pushed to end the finger-imaging requirement for food stamp applicants. He has said he will take full advantage of federal waivers to make food stamps more accessible to New Yorkers. But the city's ability to make a fresh start may very well be forestalled by the House Republicans if their proposals succeed.

This would mean more than a missed opportunity for New York City, it would be a tragedy for millions of unemployed workers across the country. Cutting meager food stamp benefits to Americans who are out of work or requiring them to attend dead-end job placement training and Work Experience programs will do nothing to improve the over-all economy. It certainly hasn't in New York. But it will cause a great deal of hardship for those who are least to blame for this economic crisis.

Maggie Dickinson is a cultural anthropologist currently finishing a dissertation on food policy in New York City at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research is concerned with hunger, poverty and inequality in the urban U.S.