State officials are under pressure to implement federal work requirements for nearly 50,000 food stamp recipients in Cook County, starting in January 2020.
It’s the first time any individuals who receive the public benefits in Illinois’s most populous county will have to comply with the requirements since they became federal law in 1996. Poverty experts and state officials called it a major change, both for food stamp recipients and for state agencies.
For many years, Illinois enjoyed a statewide waiver to the work requirement, due to relatively high unemployment. But with unemployment rates declining in many Illinois counties, the state has had to pare back its annual waiver request. In 2018, DuPage County became the first county in a decade not subjected to the waiver. In 2020, Cook County will join it, leaving 100 of 102 Illinois counties still exempt from the work requirement.
“Unfortunately, after going through the numbers in a variety of ways in the course of many weeks, we realized there was no way we could exempt Cook County,” said Grace Hou, secretary for the Illinois Department of Human Services.
The work requirement applies to participants in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, who are able-bodied, without children and between the ages of 18 and 49. In Illinois, roughly 140,000 SNAP recipients fall into this category, with more than one-third of them in Cook County. The rule will limit those individuals to just three months of food stamps within a three-year period, unless they provide documentation that they are working or participating in job training for a total of at least 80 hours a month.
States can obtain a waiver to the work requirement for areas where unemployment exceeds the national rate by at least 20%. Minus Cook and DuPage counties, unemployment in Illinois stood at 4.8% — 20% higher than the nationwide rate of 4% — according to state documents obtained by WBEZ. The combined unemployment of Cook and DuPage counties stood at 3.9%, according to the state documents. Including those counties would have prevented Illinois, as a whole, from qualifying for the waiver in 2020.
For many years, critics have claimed that Illinois has abused the waiver program, combining county unemployment statistics in unusual ways to maximize the area for which the state could claim an exemption to the rule. Critics have said that, in times of low employment, healthy people in their prime working years should be able to achieve self-sufficiency through work. But those who provide frontline assistance to low-income participants report that it’s more complicated than that.
“I think when you talk to the people that we serve at the Illinois Department of Human Services, and you ask them what they really ultimately want, they do want a job,” said Hou. “But I think the reality in the lives of the people who we serve, in particular, there are barriers that prevent them from actually being able to do that.”
Studies have shown that childless adults that fall into this group tend to have relatively high rates of undiagnosed or undocumented mental and physical health issues that interfere with work; the majority have attained no more than a high school diploma; and some struggle with finding employment because of criminal histories. Additionally, when compared with other categories of food stamp recipients, they tend to live in much deeper poverty.
“This is probably one of the last things that they’re actually eligible for in terms of a public benefit,” said Hou. She noted that these individuals receive, on average, $217 a month in food assistance, or $7 a day. Experts say it’s a small amount, but it can make a big difference for those who may face the reality of having to choose between paying for food or paying for rent.
With just six weeks before the rule takes effect in Cook County, Hou said her department is busy setting up specialized teams at its offices in both DuPage and Cook counties to help connect affected participants with work and training opportunities. Additionally, it is working to enhance the support that food pantries will be able to provide, and to expand employment and training opportunities to help people retain their benefits.
Odette Yousef is a WBEZ reporter on WBEZ’s Race, Class and Communities desk. Follow her @oyousef.