More than 17,000 food stamp recipients in eight Kentucky counties must begin part-time work, education or volunteer activities to keep their benefits under a requirement reinstated this month.
The rule had been waived since March 2009 because of the recession, which drove up the number of people needing food stamps across the country.
With the economy recovering, however, the federal government did not extend the statewide waiver. It expired Jan. 1.
That means that to continue receiving food stamps, some people now have to document that they spend an average of 20 hours a week at a job, doing volunteer work or taking classes.
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The rule applies to only a small percentage of people in what is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
The people no longer covered under the waiver are adults ages 18 to 50 who can work — called able-bodied adults — and don’t have dependents, meaning the requirement won’t affect people with children in the household.
And the rule applies only in Fayette, Jefferson, Bullitt, Daviess, Henderson, Hardin, Warren and McCracken counties, according to officials with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
Cabinet officials said a total of about 17,500 able-bodied adults were affected by the rule in those eight counties, including 2,436 in Fayette County.
For 95 other counties, the state sought and received a continued waiver of the 20-hour participation requirement, according to Ginny Carrington, director of the cabinet’s Division of Family Support.
That waiver, which the state must request annually, was based on unemployment rates, Carrington said.
In addition, the state was able to exempt able-bodied adults from the rule in the remaining 17 counties under another provision.
The eight counties where the requirement is back in place are those that state officials thought had the most resources to help people meet the rule, cabinet spokeswoman Jill Midkiff said.
All the counties except for McCracken had unemployment rates below the state average in November, the most recent month with available figures, according to the state Education and Workforce Development Cabinet.
In addition, they also generally have more opportunities for SNAP recipients to do volunteer work, or pursue education or training than in more rural areas.
The people subject to the renewed requirement will have three months to comply before being disqualified from SNAP, Midkiff said.
The gross annual income limit for a single person to qualify for food stamps is $15,312, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The maximum monthly benefit for a single person this year is $194, according to the department’s website, though that varies based on a number of factors.
After years under the waiver for able-bodied SNAP recipients, the state had to reissue its policy and has retrained workers about applying it, Carrington said.
The state administers SNAP through the Department for Community Based Services.
The department will work with people in deciding how to comply with the rule, and facilitate contacts with agencies or nonprofit organizations that can help them, officials said.
The Charlotte Observer reported this month that lawmakers in North Carolina approved applying the 20-hour work or education requirement statewide, even in counties where it could have gotten a continued waiver.
There’s been no discussion of doing that in Kentucky, according to officials with the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
There were more than 207,000 people in households receiving SNAP benefits in the eight counties in December, so able-bodied adults without dependents accounted for less than 10 percent of the total.
Still, nonprofit organizations that help low-income people in Kentucky said there are concerns about SNAP beneficiaries being able to satisfy the requirements.
Many lack job skills and might need help with issues such as writing a résumé or dressing properly, said advocates for low-income people.
Many also will face challenges finding transportation and child care.
“People can’t pay for child care and work a minimum-wage job,” said Malcolm Ratchford, executive director of the Community Action Council in Lexington, which serves Fayette, Bourbon, Harrison and Nicholas counties.
Kim Embrey-Hill, executive director of the Multi-Purpose Community Action Agency, which serves Bullitt County, said the agency struggled to find child care for parents taking part in a program there aimed at strengthening marriages and relationships.
The classes were in the evening — as some jobs available to SNAP participants would be — and there weren’t enough options for good-quality child care, Embrey-Hill said.
“It was a nightmare,” she said.
The agency ended up using its own staff to watch kids while their parents were in class.
Embrey-Hill said Bullitt County has no public transportation system, which could make it difficult for people to get to jobs or school.
Lynne Robey, executive director of the Central Kentucky Community Action Council, which includes Hardin County, said it would be a big job to manage the cases of people who now have to look for work or education opportunities.
Her organization provides that service for people in another public-assistance program but does not have the money to do it for SNAP beneficiaries in Hardin County, Robey said.
She said there are about 600 Hardin County residents affected.
“Who’s gonna help ’em?” Robey said.
Ratchford said the Community Action Council in Lexington was trying to figure out if it could provide job training for the affected SNAP beneficiaries.
The council already provides that service to people in another assistance program.
The idea behind requiring people to work or take classes to get food stamps is to help them become self-sufficient.
Ratchford said he understands that goal. His agency has always encouraged people it helps to work or to volunteer to improve their skills, he said.
However, there can be a problem if working to satisfy the SNAP requirements suddenly causes people to lose other benefits, such as housing assistance, Ratchford said.
Advocates said some people might give up food stamps to avoid that, which could mean increased demand at food pantries.
An incremental approach to moving people off public assistance would be better, Ratchford said.
“The gradual process is what’s needed,” he said.