Between 30,000 and 100,000 people in Pennsylvania could lose food stamp benefits in 2016 due to a rule change limiting able-bodied adults to three months' worth of aid.
The rule was part of the 1996 federal welfare overhaul, officially known as the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. Under that reform package, signed by then-President Bill Clinton, able-bodied adults without jobs could only receive food stamps for three months.
That three-month limit was waived for nine years during the recent recession as jobless rates in Pennsylvania spiked, mirroring the economic conditions in the rest of the nation, Pennsylvania's Newsworks reported.
But with the economy recovering -- at least on paper, with jobless rates falling again -- the original 1996 rule will be placed back into effect for adults between the ages of 18 and 50 who don't have disabilities and aren't raising children.
Overall, about 1.8 million Pennsylvanians receive food stamps, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Among adults in the 18 to 50 age bracket, 40 percent have jobs, but don't work enough hours to keep their benefits. People in that category must work 20 hours a week to continue qualifying for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Recipients in the able-bodied, childless adult bracket are eligible for up to $194 a month in assistance. Groups at risk of losing those benefits include veterans readjusting to civilian life, as well as people whose criminal records or lack of high school diplomas prevent them from getting jobs, said Rochelle Jackson, a public policy advocate with Pittsburgh's Just Harvest.
“It’s not that these people don’t want to work,” Jackson told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Hopefully, with [the Department of Human Services], we can get them some real employment training opportunities.”
People living in counties that still have high unemployment rates -- including Philadelphia and Delaware counties -- are exempt from the changes, Newsworks reported. The state has 24 exempt counties, as well as certain cities and rural pockets where unemployment remains unusually high.
People in other counties could be hit hard, with an estimated 8,000 people in Alleghany County expected to lose their benefits, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Advocates for the poor and some policy analysts said the work requirement rule hurts more than it helps. With the waiver dropped, "it's just a harsh rule that states are struggling to deal with," said Ed Bolen, a senior analyst and expert on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
“This rule would mean if you are working 18 hours a week and you want another shift, you still get cut off," Bolen said. "You could be looking for a job 30 hours a week, you would still get cut off."