- Associated Press - Friday, November 27, 2015

MISHAWAKA, Ind. (AP) - After more than three years in jail, Bonita Richards works at temp jobs, piecing together 20 hours of work each week at various factories.

It’s just enough to satisfy a rule that Indiana’s food stamp office reinstituted in July - a rule that has cost about 18,300 adults across Indiana to lose their food stamps this month.

Richards, 39, who lives in Osceola, said she’s tried seeking a permanent job, but employers are often turned off when they see the felony that’s now four years into her past: forgery, for writing bad checks at local retailers. Meanwhile, her food stamps dropped from $194 to $102 per month after she started hitting temp jobs that paid $11 per hour.

It speaks to the difficulty of balancing work and benefits. But Indiana was due to bring back the rule, which dates back to 1996 and which aims to support the poor with work rather than government aid.

If you’re a food stamps recipient who’s able-bodied between age 18 and 49 and if you don’t have any dependent children, you need to work 20 hours per week or be in a job training program for 20 hours per week. If you fail to do that, you’ll be limited to three months of food stamps in a three-year time frame.

The rule isn’t new. It’s a federal requirement, and Indiana was among the states that suspended the rule in 2009 as part of a federal stimulus package during the recession, according to Indiana’s food stamp program, known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. That stimulus package expired early this year. So, Indiana and other states had to reinstitute the rule.

To pay the bills, Richards said she also donates plasma for income and, on Monday, she picked up food at the Mishawaka Food Pantry.

She said she takes pain pills to soothe her aching hands, which she said are due now for carpel tunnel surgery. The pain pills “keep me going until I can get the surgery scheduled,” she explained. “I’ve got to keep the rent paid.”

The condition may gain her an exemption if she pursues the paperwork. To qualify, clients with medical conditions can provide a statement from their doctor, said Marni Lemons, spokeswoman with Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration.

Lemons has said the state aimed to be proactive when the rule went into effect, alerting those whom it would affect and their options, including 2,814 clients that fit the description in St. Joseph County, 136 in Marshall County, 1,105 in Elkhart County and 1,080 in LaPorte County.

And local charity staffs say they were notified this past summer, too.

Some key local food pantries and poverty-focused charities say they aren’t seeing a major spike in services because of the food stamp rule. But, charity directors say, some clients have mentioned that they were seeking help with food because of a loss of food stamps - at Hope Ministries’ daily meals and at the Mishawaka Food Pantry, for example.

One client at the Mishawaka pantry asked to volunteer so he could meet the requirement, Director Mike Hayes said.

As the Thanksgiving holiday nears, there are more people seeking help with food this month. From Nov. 1 to 22, the United Way of St. Joseph County’s 211 information and referral line received 62 calls from people seeking food help in St. Joseph County, up 72 percent from the same dates in October.

But, compared with the same dates last year, this November so far has seen 31 percent fewer calls for food help to 211, the United Way reports. Across the agency’s entire 211 service area - or 19 counties, including Allen County - such calls rose 8 percent over last year.

Richards said the state also has offered her a chance to attend its IMPACT work training program. It may be difficult to reach since it’s in Elkhart, she said.

She made it to the Mishawaka pantry thanks to a neighbor, Mark McClintic, who has a car and can drive. McClintic is also a former inmate (for shoplifting) who’s struggling with the same dilemma - juggling temp jobs and food stamps - though he isn’t affected by the rule since he’s 58.

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Source: South Bend Tribune, https://bit.ly/1Sl1Y7G

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, https://www.southbendtribune.com

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