By Karlton Tate
Last year, the North Carolina General Assembly voted to end exemptions for eligibility on federal government requirements for the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, popularly known as food stamps, affecting over 100 thousand North Carolinians statewide. In the wake of the 2008 economic recession, many states suspended the requirement that food stamp recipients under the age of 50 who do not have children must prove that they are working, volunteering, or taking educational classes for at least 20 hours each week. On Jan. 1, the exemption ended in 23 counties including Wake and Durham, and state lawmakers have voted to restore the requirement for North Carolina’s 77 other counties in July.
The state promises to provide a three-month grace period in which food stamp recipients can still receive benefits without meeting the reinstated requirements. However, many political justice groups are concerned that the changes will be problematic for the thousands of families set to be affected. Director of the Justice Center’s Budget and Tax Center Alexandra Sirota notes that many food stamp recipients will be unable to meet the education requirement due to lack of transportation and limited educational institutions.
“If they’re in a rural place, it’s hard for them to drive to the community college,” said Sirota in an interview with the News and Observer.
Sirota also cautions that nonprofit organizations in rural areas have limited opportunities and will likely be unable to accommodate the influx of new volunteers. In fact, some counties have been forced to create volunteer positions so that potential food stamp recipients can still fulfill the volunteer requirements.
“We’re trying to ramp up our volunteer activity so that if people can’t find employment, they can volunteer with the county,” said Regina Petteway, director of Wake County Human Services.
In 2016, nearly 40 million Americans relied on the SNAP program nationwide, and 13.9 percent of the population in North Carolina benefited from the government assistance. Those who will lose food stamp benefits as a result of these changes will likely rely more heavily on their community’s local food bank, which is a concern for social service officials.
“Our system has been stretched for a while, and this is going to stretch it even more,” said Jennifer Caslin, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank of Central and Eastern North Carolina.
In Chapel Hill, organizations like PORCH relieve some of the strain on local food banks by collecting canned goods and nonperishable items from neighborhoods in the community and delivering them directly to households in need. At East, the recently-revitalized PORCH club organizes food drives and events to generate interest in the organization.
“Right now, it is really important for people to continue to donate,” said co-president of East’s PORCH club Sam Pritchard.
This year, it is likely that the recently-expanded GOP presence in the state legislature will look to continue to reduce social welfare programs like food stamps and medicaid. However, newly-elected Governor Roy Cooper has outlined his intentions to support these programs throughout his term, and the success of Republican efforts remains to be seen.
Photo courtesy of westmorelandfoodbank.org