Thousands of Arizonans lose food stamps

Elizabeth Bagby-Emmons’ 8-year-old daughter was coming home after being placed in foster care for two years. But, as she prepared for her child’s return, she was unable to put food on the table. Bagby-Emmons had lost her food stamps, and with that, the ability to feed her child.

“What more can the state do to me? What more can they pull? They’ve got my kid, now they’re going to take my food away,” Bagby-Emmons said.

Like roughly 21,000 others in Maricopa County, Bagby-Emmons was mailed three notices that her Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits, would be cut off.

To have their benefits reinstated, those 21,000 must get a job or participate in work-related activities, or prove they should be exempt from the regulation. The work requirement was waived during the recession, but with the improving economy it has been restored, leading to challenges surrounding communication of the change, the availability of jobs for those who try to seek them and whether food-based charities will be able to handle any increase in demand.

As of February, 965,434 people in Arizona were issued SNAP benefits, according to the Arizona Department of Economic Security. The average issuance per person is $120.53 per month. Approximately 9,800 lost their benefits on April 1, according to Angie Rodgers, president and CEO of the Association of Arizona Food Banks.

A lot of people see this as a program change. It’s really not a change,” said Mark Darmer, assistant director for the Division of Employment and Rehabilitation Services of the Arizona Department of Economic Security. “It is, the state has been under a waiver for a number of years due to the high unemployment, and these requirements that are part of the normal program have not had to be enforced because we were under a waiver.”

In August 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act established the work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDS. The rule requires that these adults must take part in work or work-related activities for an average of 20 hours per week or an average of 80 hours per month, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. If not, they will only be able to receive benefits for three months over a time span of three years

The state can apply for a waiver for an area with “an unemployment rate above 10 percent or a lack of sufficient jobs,” according to the USDA.

Able-bodied adults were exempt from the requirement to work part time or participate in job training activities, during the recession and years after. As the economy improved, Maricopa County lost its waiver for this exemption in January, according to an information page on the AAFB website. In January 2016 the unemployment rate was 5.6 percent, and in February 2016 it was 5.5 percent.

“In essence what this means is 21,000 individuals in Maricopa County, what they call able- bodied adults without dependents, so single adults between the ages of 18 and 49, will now need to go out and find employment in order to receive benefits,” said Rodgers.

People subject to the requirements in Maricopa County were sent three notices, Rodgers said. One in January, one in February and one in March. The three-month period was considered the grace period.

“They sent me a letter saying I was an able-bodied person without a child, and I’m like, wait a minute here, I have a child,” Bagby-Emmons said.

To retain benefits, an individual must be between the ages of 18 and 50, and prove they live with a child, have a disability, are participating in a rehabilitation program, are pregnant, are employed, are at least a part-time student or are receiving unemployment insurance, according to an AAFB website page.

For those who did lose their SNAP benefits but can prove an exemption, Darmer said it is not too late to receive benefits if they reach out to the state.

“Just because the client has lost benefits doesn’t mean that they can’t come back into our office and reapply,” Darmer said. If they come in, reapply, and engage with the program, they can get back onto benefits. We can’t go retro and cover the time that they were not in compliance.”

Because Bagby-Emmons’ child was in foster care, the state saw her as an adult without dependents and her stamps were cut off on the renewal date. But, she went to the offices and spoke to a case worker about her situation.

“So April 3 comes along I don’t get my stamps,” Bagby-Emmons said. “I come down here and I tell them, here’s the deal: my child is supposed to be coming back into my custody any day.”

By bringing in a signed letter from the judge proving that her daughter was going to be back in her custody, Bagby-Emmons said her case worker gave approval for the renewal of her SNAP benefits on April 14.

“My child comes back with nothing but the clothes on her back, and I have no food. I just went in there and gave them this piece of paper,” she said.

She added that proving the situation was difficult.

“I think the process is just ridiculous because most of the time it’s just people like me wouldn’t even have a way to get down here and do this,” Bagby-Emmons said.

High staff turnover at DES, Rodgers said, could be complicating the process.

“I think the other confusing part has been with eligibility workforce. The turnover rate over at
DES has been high. So if they’re not familiar with the requirement, how to implement it, how to ensure compliance, how to explain it to clients, could also be confusing for workers,” Rodgers said.

Darmer says DES has, “taken steps to address that.”

“We’re doing a lot with employee retention at this point to ensure that we’re not seeing a high turnover rate there. Those steps took place November of last year and we have seen that turnover decline significantly. I don’t think the clients are going to see that constant changing of faces that they may have seen in the past,” he said. “We’re taking steps on the employee retention side, which will increase program knowledge and help those clients that are coming in, looking for that assistance. We’ll have more knowledgable staff.”

Education about the SNAP changes has also included organizations outside of DES teaming up in order to make sure all known information is spread.

“As the integrated human services agency that provides critical protective and assistance services to Arizona’s children, adults, and families, DES partners with an array of nonprofit and for-profit organizations, faith based organizations, governmental agencies and other community partners throughout its program divisions to assist individuals and families in achieving self-sufficiency and stability. These partners are kept informed of all critical changes affecting Arizonans, such as the ABAWD time limit,” Todd Stone of the Arizona Department of Economic Security said in an email response.

One of these partners is the Arizona Community Action Association. George Garcia, hunger program and policy manager of the organization, said their goal is to make access to the information easier.

“We work together with well over 60 plus community partner organizations, local government organizations and community faith-based organizations that are embedded in their community and people trust and can go to these organizations to seek assistance with anything related to SNAP,” Garcia said.

Garcia said this communication is a constant flow of information because of change.

“We’ve been keeping our partners up to date with the policy changes,” Garcia said. “Any time anything is updated or we receive any communication from DES related to ABAWD and the process we immediately contact our 60 plus community partner organizations so that they know what to expect – so that they know where to direct people when they get a notice saying that they now have these ABAWD rules that they need to comply with.”

For one of Garcia’s community partners, St. Mary’s Food Bank, the change is less about information and preparation, and more about the response because “it’s food that’s going to be lost,” said Jerry Brown, director of public relations with St. Mary’s Food Bank.

“We’re already doing more than we ever thought we were going to do as a food bank. Adding more folks that may need help because of any benefit cuts, definitely puts another strain on the food bank,” Brown said.

But, until those affected come to the food bank, there is no way of knowing what exactly will happen, Brown said.

“We do what we can every day to make sure that we’re prepared as well as we can be for the people that need our help,” Brown said. “We’re not sure exactly how many folks will be affected. We’re not sure how many of those folks that are affected will use the food bank for their services. I think we’re kind of taking a wait-and-see attitude to see where we’re at.”

Rodgers said now that the changes have hit, the food banks will be working toward finding communities most in need and bringing the information to them, as opposed to having them reach out to the state to get what they need.

Rodgers also questions the ability of the state economy to provide an adequate amount of employment.

“My concern is there certainly aren’t 21,000 jobs available,” Rodgers said. “So there are going to be some individuals who will be left without employment and they will also be left without food to get the job, so I’m concerned about what will happen to them in the short term.”

In February, there were 47,753 job postings according to the Office of Employment and Population Statistics, part of the Director’s Office in the Arizona Department of Administration. But many who lost their benefits are not qualified for the available jobs.

“I don’t see all these Arizonans back to work. And if we are back to work, we’re making $8 an hour,” Bagby-Emmons said. Bagby-Emmons was hired as a part-time driver for a division of Valley Metro on April 11.

DES said they understand that many will have barriers to employment, but the fix to the situation isn’t as limited as it might seem.

“It’s not all just a job. There are a lot of work activities that clients can undertake. They can do job search. They can attend workshops, resume writing, skill building, those types of things,” Darmer said. “The program doesn’t just require that you have a job to be participating. It requires that you involve yourself in work activities.”

Two other counties in Arizona, Pima and Yavapai, will also need to follow the time limit requirements, but the rollout is staggered, according to Rodgers. Instead of setting an exact date for each county, DES will start the three-month time limit based on each person’s individual renewal date. The lack of a “hard line” should be helpful in implementing this in other counties, Rodgers said.

“I think that will be a little more helpful, particularly for the Department who might see an influx of individuals calling,” she added.