State’s new food-stamp law needlessly punitive

Beginning in January, putting food on the table got harder for Miami-Dade County’s working poor, and Florida taxpayers now pay more money to provide food-stamp benefits to fewer people.

As a part of welfare reform passed at the national level in 1996, adults age 18-49 who are able to work are required to work or participate in a job-training program for at least 80 hours each month to remain eligible to receive food stamps.

Following the economic downturn in 2008, the federal government waived this requirement in Florida because there were not enough jobs to go around. It simply wasn’t fair to require people to work 80 hours a month to receive food stamps if work was not widely available.

Last year, the Florida Legislature unanimously passed a new law that requires the state agency tasked with administering the food-stamp program in the state to get the Legislature’s approval to request a continued waiver of food-stamp work requirements. While unemployment is still so high in areas of Miami-Dade County that the federal government could waive the work requirement for these areas, the new law prevents the agency from asking for the waiver.

Few would disagree with the notion that those who can work should work. But the waiver of the work requirement now eschewed by the state of Florida for areas of Miami-Dade County with high unemployment is for the limited circumstance of a lack of job opportunities in a community.

Because of this recent change, low-income workers who fail to work or participate in job training at least 80 hours in a month face a series of escalating sanctions. At the end of the month, any worker who was only able to work 79 hours is sanctioned and cannot receive food stamps for a month.

The next time they fail to work 80 hours in a month, even if years have passed since the previous sanction, they lose benefits for three months. The next time, and each time after, they lose their food stamps for six months.

These severe sanctions are not required by federal law.

This approach to limiting the number of food stamp recipients makes little economic sense. Leaving aside estimates that every $5 provided in food stamps generates $9 of economic activity, the federal government pays 100 percent of the cost of food-stamp benefits, while the administrative costs of the program are split 50/50 between the federal and state governments.

It’s easy to see that the newly reinstated work requirements will cost us, Florida’s taxpayers, more money because of these increased costs. The increased administrative burden of tracking the hours worked by the roughly 300,000 people subject to the work requirements in Florida is significant. Floridians will now pay more to provide food stamps to fewer people and our already strained community organizations and food banks will bear the brunt of ensuring that no one in our community goes hungry.

Liam McGivern is a staff attorney in the public benefits unit at Legal Services of Greater Miami, Inc.