Rauner may slash food stamps for thousands of Illinois residents

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File photo by Michelle Kanaar

The Rauner administration could drop a waiver that allows almost a quarter-million Illinois adults to keep receiving food stamp benefits.

Advocates for human services are worried that Gov. Bruce Rauner is planning to eliminate food stamps for as many as a quarter-million low-income Illinois residents.

And according to some advocates, Illinois Department of Human Services workers report that the state has begun using new administrative measures to throw eligible food stamp recipients off the rolls.

At issue is a large category of recipients in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, called “able-bodied adults without dependents.”  Various estimates put their number as high as 240,000.

Under Clinton-era welfare reform, they were limited to three months of SNAP benefits every three years.  But states with limited job availability could apply for waivers to that restriction, and Illinois has had a waiver since the beginning.

Rauner favored dropping the waiver in previous years, but was talked out of it by moderate voices in his administration, advocates say.  But those moderates have been replaced by staunch reactionaries from the Illinois Policy Institute, who have echoed conservative talking points against people who they believe should be gainfully employed.

“We are going to fight very, very hard to make sure that they continue to use the waiver,” said Diane Doherty of the Illinois Hunger Coalition.

The crazy thing is, food stamps are entirely funded by the federal government.  In a state with chronic budget problems, the program costs Illinois nothing and brings millions of dollars into the state’s economy, helping low-income people stay healthy and boosting spending in grocery stores.

The move “seems to be connected to a right-wing agenda” that is “hostile to maintaining a human services system that actually meets the needs of the vulnerable,” said Fran Tobin of the Alliance for Community Services.

Doherty said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, has previously urged the Rauner administration to keep the waiver in place. They cited serious problems encountered when IDHS attempted to roll out a new computerized integrated eligibility system – as well as the state’s dead-last rank in timeliness in processing SNAP applications.

In fact, the USDA argued that “Illinois is in no shape to terminate benefits for this many people in a lawful manner,” she said.

If tens of thousands of people are being pushed off food stamps to force them to become self-sufficient, what are their prospects?  Many live in communities with astronomical unemployment rates on the South and West Sides. Many others live in economically troubled downstate areas.

They can’t expect much from the state’s workforce development programs, which are experiencing a “major resource deficit” – made worse by the state’s budget crisis – according to Carrie Thomas, executive director of the Chicago Jobs Council.

IDHS has an employment and training program for SNAP recipients, but it has only about 2,000 slots, she said.  More slots have been available through a federal pilot program, but it’s not being renewed.  Adult education and federal workforce programs currently serve about 100,000, but they are already at full capacity, she said.

“Any way you look at it, there just isn’t an infrastructure in the state to provide services to 200,000 additional people,” Thomas said.  And the state budget crisis “really put a crunch on community-based services,” she added.  “These organizations aren’t in any position to ramp up and do things quickly.” She said the state should renew the waiver and take the time to regenerate the employment services system.

We can look at what happened in Wisconsin, under similar conservative Republican leadership. In 2013 the state mandated compulsory participation in an employment and training program for able-bodied adults without dependents who were getting food stamps.  In the first six months more than 30,000 lost their benefits, according to the Milwaukee Hunger Task Force.  Of those referred to the employment program, 53 percent lost their benefits, while only 7 percent were placed in jobs.

As the task force put it in a letter urging Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to renew the same waiver Rauner is now considering dropping, “Unfortunately, mandating work does not create jobs.”

Already, IDHS is using administrative processes to cut the food stamps list, Tobin said. “People are getting cancelled not because they’re found ineligible, but because they don’t jump through administrative hoops,” he said.

One point at which this happens is when recipients have to come in to recertify their eligibility. “One of the games they play is to send out letters [scheduling recertification meetings] three days before the appointment,” one IDHS worker told me. “Everybody was missing their appointments.  And if they missed the appointment, they were cancelled.”

In addition, workers in some IDHS offices are being given quotas of SNAP recipients to call and invite to participate in employment training.  If they agree to participate but miss a couple of meetings, they can lose their benefits, Tobin said.

Again, this program is entirely funded by the federal government.  Illinois is already one of the last states in the amount of federal income taxes paid by residents that come back to the state.  It makes no sense to throw away federal funding that boosts the state’s economy.

It’s also heartless.  Perhaps, with the new Illinois Policy Institute contingent apparently intent on letting Rauner be Rauner, our governor intends to run for reelection as the second coming of Ebenezer Scrooge.  That’s his prerogative. But Illinois residents – in distressed communities in Chicago and in downstate counties where food stamp use is very high – shouldn’t be the victims of that strategy.

(Update: Meghan Powers, director of communications for the Illinois Department of Human Services, says the department “has never directed employees to make any efforts to reduce SNAP caseloads for eligible individuals and there have been no policy changes regarding this from this administration. Reductions in SNAP caseloads should be due to individuals gaining employment and increased income. If the department were to be made aware of an employee inappropriately cancelling SNAP cases, we would take immediate administrative action.”)