Hundreds of thousands of people could soon lose food stamps as states reimpose time limits and work requirements that were suspended in recent years because of high unemployment, state officials and advocates for the poor said Friday.
Liberal groups said that many unemployed childless adults with low incomes could be cut off, starting this month, as a result of the time limits, which date to the 1996 welfare law.
About 45 million people receive benefits in the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning research and advocacy group, estimates that 500,000 to 1 million people will lose benefits this year.
The federal Food and Nutrition Service said many adults would need to take steps to meet work requirements or risk losing aid.
“Able-bodied adults without dependents are eligible for SNAP for only three months in any three-year period unless they are working or participating in qualifying education and training activities,” said Kevin W. Concannon, undersecretary of agriculture in charge of food assistance programs.
During and after the latest recession, which ended in mid-2009, most states qualified for waivers from the time limits. But the time limits will be in effect this year in more than 40 states. In 22 states, the limits are coming back for the first time since the recession.
As the economy improves, the Food and Nutrition Service said, many places no longer qualify for time limit waivers.
Dorothy Rosenbaum, a food policy expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said people could be particularly hard hit in Southern and Southeastern states including Arkansas, Florida and Mississippi. In many states, she said, the time limits took effect in January, and the first people will be cut off this month.
Ellen M. Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center, an advocacy group, noted that the poet T.S. Eliot had described April as “the cruelest month,” and for people losing SNAP benefits, she said, that description is appropriate.
“Many thousands of jobless adults without dependents will lose all their SNAP benefits even though they are seeking work,” she said.
The people at risk of losing food aid are 18 to 49 years old. People younger than 18 or older than 49, pregnant women and people who are medically certified as “unfit for employment,” because of a disability, are generally exempt from the time limits.
In 2016, Rosenbaum said, the three-month time limit will be in effect in areas with about 65 percent of the U.S. population while the rest of the country can qualify for waivers because of high and persistent unemployment, and officials in those states have requested a continuation of the waivers.
By contrast, Rosenbaum said, the 2015 time limits were in effect in areas with about 30 percent of the country’s population.
The Labor Department reported Friday that the national unemployment rate was 5 percent, half of what it was in late 2009.
“Although the overall jobless rate has been slowly falling,” Rosenbaum said, “other labor market data indicate that many people who want to work still cannot find jobs. Cutting off food assistance does not enable them to find employment or secure more hours of work.”
People likely to lose benefits because of the time limits have monthly incomes averaging from $150 to $170 a person, or 17 percent of the official poverty level for individuals, Rosenbaum said.
Congressional aides and food policy experts said they saw no immediate prospect that Congress would step in to extend any relief. In any event, states have discretion over whether to seek a waiver of the time limits, and some have chosen not to do so, even though they could qualify.
Concannon, the federal official, said it was unwise for states to reimpose time limits in places where adults seeking work could not find jobs because of economic conditions.
More than 1 million people received assistance last year in an employment and training program for SNAP recipients. But some states returned federal money to the government, and 21 states did not use any of the federal funds that were available to them in the program, federal officials said.
In a recent notice to childless adults subject to the time limits, the Obama administration said, “To keep getting SNAP benefits, you must work halftime or do 80 hours per month of educational or training activities.”
Participation in the SNAP program more than doubled from 2003 to 2012. In December, 45.2 million people were receiving SNAP benefits. The number has fallen by 2.6 million since reaching a peak in December 2012.