Thousands of people in South Mississippi on the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program could lose their monthly food benefit of up to $190 before summer.
Starting this year, SNAP recipients from 18 to 49 years old who have no children have three months to find a job or enroll in training or education programs. If they don't, their benefits likely will end. Those benefits are similar to the old food stamp program. Now the money is loaded on a card similar to a credit card that can be used to buy approved food items.
And while cutting benefits may cheer those who believe most welfare recipients are simply lazy, community activists say the policy, which went into effect Jan. 1, could cut the last lifeline
for Mississippi's most vulnerable people.
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"In most cases, these are the most vulnerable young adults who are living in economies that aren't producing a lot of job opportunities," said Matt Williams, who studied the program for the Mississippi Center for Justice. "In most cases, it's folks who have fallen onto hard times. These are folks who are trying to get back on their feet. If anyone has ever tried to get a job in a county where unemployment is 13 or 14 percent, it could take a lot longer than three months."
Some employment experts, for example, remind even those professionals with advanced degrees not to get discouraged if they waited six months without a call back.
In fact, the people who administer the program say many who receive SNAP are employed but simply don't make enough to lift themselves out of poverty. Under the new rules, they may not get enough hours some months to meet the work requirement.
"The public, what they see and what they hear, the old-school thinking is, yeah, everybody who is getting government assistance is basically living their life off it," said Harold Netto, regional director over the state Department of Human Service region that includes the three Coast counties. "Here, we don't think of it that way. What we think of is trying to improve their life the best we can -- not only putting food on the table through the SNAP program but to put them in some of these employment opportunities."
Some move on
There are, Netto said, families who have been on assistance program for a long time -- generational, you could call it -- just as there are those who get on after exhausting unemployment and other benefits, stay on a few months, get a job and move on.
"I think we're doing really well even though we serve somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 percent of the population in Harrison County one way or another," Netto said. "Any time the economy goes down, our job gets bigger and bigger."
Right now, the state's economy seems to be going down. Mississippi's unemployment rate is among the highest in the nation. The governor last week had to order budget cuts because revenue is below expectations, another indication the economy is sagging.
The DHS has an array of chances for people to meet the work requirement, or better yet, find a job that pays enough to make assistance unnecessary.
"Our biggest goal is to make them self-sufficient," Netto said. "It will be a whole lot better if they were working, even a part-time job, and contributing. If you work, you're meeting other people, you're networking, you're talking to this one, that one. Working sometimes can be tough but it can open doors."
A job for everyone?
Gov. Phil Bryant has said more than once he wants to have a job for everyone, even those who don't want one. So far, the state hasn't come up with that many jobs -- and getting that first job is especially hard.
In Mississippi, youth employment has been chronically low. The latest Opportunity Index found nearly one Mississippian in five from 18 to 24 years old wasn't working and was not in school. And many of the jobs available pay minimum wage, which won't allow a person to earn enough money to exceed SNAP eligibility.
The Center for Justice said the policy not only will hurt the state's poorest residents, it will take $8.1 million out of the state's economy each month.
"It does boost the economy tremendously," Netto said. "I think we do $5 million to $6 million a month in SNAP benefits alone."
He said the economic impact of that spending is about $8 million.
"For every dollar spent at a grocery store, that's helping the economy," he said.
A struggle ahead
Williams said the loss of a significant number of SNAP customers in smaller counties could seriously reduce smaller stores' bottom lines and probably lead to layoffs.
And Williams said if people are taken off SNAP, they'll have to lean even harder on Coast food banks, leaving the food banks with some tough choices such as asking donors for even more money or turning people away.
"We're getting ready for a statewide effort to train (the food banks) to give them the data to help them understand the magnitude of the impact they're facing," he said. "On the Coast alone, we have one of the larger concentrations of people in this group. Just in Harrison County, we have just under 6,000 people. A little over 4,000 would be subject to the three-month time limit."
He said the loss of SNAP for all those could drain about $600,000 from the economy.
"From the food banks I've talked to in the (city of) Jackson area, they're quite worried," he said. "They may be abruptly forced to reallocate resources. If they're short on fundraising, they could be forced to increase that or look for alternative means of support."
MDHS battles the tide
MDHS, though, hopes it has the programs in place that will ensure there isn't a huge surge in people forced to turn elsewhere to put food on the table.
The agency is trying to identify all those who could be affected to tell them face to face about all the opportunities there are to meet the work requirement, said Patricia Rayford, MDHS director for Harrison County. They're scheduling 1,200 per week to come into the office to talk about the programs offered to help them find jobs and fill out the necessary forms.
And the agency could use some help, she said.
"We want people to partner with us," she said. "We really want the community to work with us on this to give the people we work with a chance. People are quick to say, this isn't our place; people can be quick to say, people don't want to work.
"We're trying to help people move up and move on."
Business partners could work with them to give people in the program volunteer hours, she said. Governments could let them clean parks. The agency has travel vouchers that can pay for bus rides to get them to a job or volunteer opportunity.
Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College is working with MDHS to provide training and education for SNAP recipients on the Coast.
"This is a pilot program that will last for three years," she said. "We believe it can truly, truly benefit our clients.
"Our goal is to make it work -- to be that piece that shows the state of Mississippi that it can work."
Mississippi's economy could allow officials to waive the work requirement.
Williams said the unemployment rate and labor surplus in the state qualifies it for the waiver.
But the state opted out of the continuing the waiver it had in place for years. No one seems to know why.
"That isn't clear," Williams said. He said the Center for Justice asked that question in its records request but didn't receive an answer. Netto said he didn't know who made that call other than it came from Jackson, and the governor's office hadn't responded to a Sun Herald request for that information. "It's not something we've seen publicly announced. It's certainly not because the economy in Mississippi has improved."