- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - With 75,000 Mississippians at risk of losing food stamp benefits on March 30 if they don’t find work or training, social service providers fear an influx of hungry people in what’s already the hungriest state in the nation.

Gov. Phil Bryant told the Mississippi Department of Human Services not to seek an extension on a federal waiver from the work rules for beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, explaining he wanted the state to steer people to jobs. Mississippi could have asked the federal government to continue releasing people from the work requirements statewide or in some high-unemployment counties. Five other states are also going from a statewide work waiver to no waivers anywhere.

“Gov. Bryant does not intend to restore the waiver,” spokesman Clay Chandler wrote in an email. “The Mississippi Department of Employment Security and the state’s WIN Job Centers are available to help these individuals find employment. In fact, MDES’ Mississippi Works app currently lists more than 40,000 job openings.”

Mississippi’s waiver ended Jan. 1, meaning people who don’t meet requirements are eligible for three months of food stamps every three years. Those three months will end March 30. Paul Nelson, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services, said officials believe about 19,000 people either meet work and training requirements or will be exempt for other reasons. That cuts to 56,000 the people who might lose SNAP benefits.

A Mississippi Center for Justice report warns the state is making a mistake because unemployment remains higher than it was in 2006 when the waiver took effect. The advocacy group questions whether state government can create enough work and training positions for people who can’t find jobs.

“Until the jobs are there, the state should continue the statewide waiver,” said report author Matt Williams. “We’re talking about a really vulnerable population.”

The United States Department of Agriculture found that 22 percent of Mississippi households were “food insecure” from 2012 to 2014, the highest rate among states. USDA says people are food insecure when their access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources.

Kathy Clem, executive director of the Good Samaritan Center, said her organization’s Laurel food pantry already serves 100 people a month, while its Jackson food pantry serves 300 people a month.

“We’re going to see a whole new category of people who are without food and I’m trying to figure out how to address that,” Clem said. “I’m trying to figure out, does that mean 10 more people every day coming in and contacting us, saying I don’t have any food?”

Nelson said the department couldn’t say what share of recipients lost benefits because they couldn’t find work when the rule was previously in effect.

People who can’t find a job can also perform “workfare,” working enough hours with a community group, getting credit at $7.25 an hour - minimum wage - to apply against benefits. That means a person would have to work 26 hours a month to reach the maximum benefit of $194 a month for a single person.

Nelson said the department doesn’t know how many education and training slots are available statewide. Leaders of several nonprofit groups said the state wants them to create workfare positions.

“They are fast and furiously looking for places,” Clem said.

Last March, USDA announced it would give Mississippi $20.5 million for a three-year plan to match SNAP recipients with training or jobs. That program projects it will serve 3,300 people now at risk of losing their benefits. Five community colleges are supposed to serve 660 more.

One program created by the grant is run by the Perico Institute, based at the Jackson Medical Mall. The institute connects SNAP recipients with training for jobs in health care, truck driving and office administration. Program associate Jessica Russell said that last year the institute trained 100 people and 79 found jobs. Russell said calls seeking training have increased sharply since the state sent out notices that people would lose benefits, saying 73 people have signed up since December.

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Follow Jeff Amy at: http://twitter.com/jeffamy. Read his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/author/jeff-amy

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