Since 2009, state governors have been encouraged to get waivers from the federal government for the requirement that able-bodied, childless adults work at least 20 hours a week to enroll in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, thanks to a weak economy where jobs have been scarce. Those waivers are now being rescinded in states with unemployment levels below 10 percent.
Yet Christie and other governors can seek county and municipal waivers for the areas in their states that still have struggling job markets. Forty-two cities, counties, and townships in New Jersey will qualify as “Labor Surplus Areas” in 2016, according to the Department of Labor, meaning that there are too many job seekers for the number of available jobs. Christie’s announcement, however, indicates he won’t seek any such waivers. As Diane Riley, advocacy director for the Community Food Bank of New Jersey, told NJ.com, “That is concerning for me because, as a food bank, we’re going to get hit hard by this. We’re going to have to brace for that and especially at our southern branch.”
Now those who had been getting food stamps thanks to the waiver will have three months to meet the work requirements in order to keep receiving the benefit. Unlike many other safety net programs, spending time searching for a job won’t count, so anyone who can’t find employment or a spot in a training program will automatically be cut off.
Christie, who is running for the Republican presidential nomination, has not overseen a robust economic recovery in his state. Its unemployment rate has been worse than the national average, while the long-term unemployment rate is worse than 48 other states. In November, the most recent data, the state’s unemployment rate was 5.3 percent.
New Jersey isn’t the only state that will no longer have a work requirement waiver. Ten others have made the same decision. While the incumbent governor of New Orleans plans to undo lame duck Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) decision to reinstate the requirements, Jindal is refusing to reverse course before he vacates the office. An estimated 1 million people will lose food stamps this year as the waivers expire.
This population is already extremely vulnerable: unemployed, able-bodied, childless adults on SNAP have an average gross income of just $2,200 a year for an individual. Their job prospects are also limited, as they are more likely than others who receive food stamps to lack basic skills like reading, writing, and math.