- Associated Press - Saturday, January 30, 2016

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - Advocates for the poor are concerned about rule changes threatening food stamp benefits for 110,000 people in North Carolina if they don’t meet work requirements.

The change in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program affects able-bodied people ages 18 through 49 with no dependents. It requires them to work, volunteer or attend education or job-training at least 80 hours a month to receive food aid. If they don’t, their benefits are cut off after three months.

“What’s problematic about this policy is that it’s not a test of one’s willingness to work,” said Tazra Mitchell, a policy analyst at the left-leaning nonprofit North Carolina Budget and Tax Center. “It applies regardless. No matter how hard they’re looking for a job, if they don’t find one in three months, their food aid is gone.”

The requirements date back to a 1996 federal welfare reform law, but they were waived for nearly every state during the recession that began in 2008. North Carolina is among 21 states where the waiver ends this year.

Across the country, an Associated Press analysis shows nearly 1.1 million adults stand to lose their benefits this year if they do not find a way to meet work requirements. The number affected in North Carolina is among the largest, following Florida’s 300,000 and Tennessee’s 150,000.

The waiver expired in January in 23 North Carolina counties, while the rest will lose the waiver by July 1.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate for December was 5.6 percent - higher than the national rate - meaning that about 270,000 people were actively looking for work.

In Raleigh, community activist Octavia Rainey said more than a dozen people came to her for help understanding letters saying they could lose their benefits. Rainey, the chairwoman of the Citizens’ Advisory Council for her neighborhood, said people were confused about the timeframe and what the next steps were.

She says many in danger of losing benefits are willing to work, but face obstacles. Some are felons who have trouble passing background checks. Others have sought work as janitors or dishwashers but can’t work odd-hour shifts because of public transportation schedules.

“There should have been more thought on how we look at employment and not thinking that people are sitting there, getting food stamps because they are lazy and don’t want to work,” she said.

In surrounding Wake County, the local government’s Human Services department has added phone lines for people who have questions about the change, is dedicating three staff members to helping people with the changes and holding information sessions. Director Regina Petteway said about 2,100 in the county will be affected by the rule change.

Alan Briggs, executive director of the North Carolina Association of Feeding America Food Banks, said many people on food stamps already receive help from food banks, but food stamp rule change is likely to increase demand.

“You’re talking about the poorest of the poor. These folks are struggling anyway,” he said.

In Johnston County southeast of Raleigh, Rachel Ayers runs a food-assistance market affiliated with Interfaith Food Shuttle. More than 600 people, some of whom are already on food stamps, came to a distribution in January. She thinks the cuts are unfair.

“Don’t take away the food until you get them a job. There’s not a lot of jobs around here,” she said.

In Raleigh, Rhonda Currie oversees a similar program that helps about 350 families per month.

“Already we’re seeing that the Interfaith Food Shuttle as well as food banks are in dire need of assistance. They have more and more people coming in,” she said.

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