New Orleans Advocates Push for State Waivers on SNAP Time Limit

By Helly Lee

Leading up to Thanksgiving, a rotating group of Louisiana advocates and religious leaders, organized by Stand with Dignity and the New Orleans Worker’s Center for Racial Justice (NOWCRJ), engaged in a 15-day fast to protest Governor Jindal’s refusal to apply for a waiver of time limits that would leave about 31,000 Louisiana residents at risk of losing food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). These organizations also created a petition that has garnered over a thousand signatures and filed a lawsuit against the Jindal Administration. While Jindal has held fast in his refusal, incoming Governor John Bel Edwards announced this week that he will apply for waiver as soon as he takes office next month. He further committed that he would, “take the next year to work with DCFS and the Louisiana Legislature to develop programs that offer workforce training and assistance to those on SNAP.”

Since 1996, SNAP receipt has been limited to 3 months in a 36 month period for certain childless individuals who are not working or participating in a qualifying work or training activity for 20 hours or more per week, known as Able Bodied Adults without Dependents (ABAWDs). In the recession, most states received a state-wide waiver, meaning that the time limit did not apply due to high unemployment across the country. However, as the economy recovers, these state-wide waivers will largely be going away in most states (many states will still be eligible for partial waivers in areas of high unemployment within the state). CBPP has estimated that nearly 1 million low income individuals will lose critical nutrition support in 2016 due to these time limits.

Louisiana is one of only a few states whose unemployment rates remain high enough that it qualifies for a state-wide waiver. However, Governor Jindal has refused to apply for this waiver.  This decision disproportionately impacts people of color who are most likely to be unemployed and low income. In New Orleans, 52% of Black men are out of work, and Louisiana continues to have one of the highest income inequality rates in the nation. Moreover, while the value of work has been touted as the reason for ending the waiver, the Jindal administration has not made plans to offer employment and training programs to all the individuals affected by the time limit.

Louisiana started counting months toward the time limit in October, meaning that SNAP recipients could begin to lose benefits as soon as January 1. While Edwards has pledged his support for continuing food stamp access for individuals facing the time limit on SNAP, he does not take office until on January 11. It is not yet clear whether it will be possible to prevent individuals from being cut off.  However, Edwards has pledged to provide retroactive benefits if needed.

Louisiana is not the only state where Governors have failed to apply for time limit waivers that are available. Some states have gone as far as passing state legislation to prohibit the state from taking up the waivers they are eligible for in times of high unemployment. What the success in Louisiana reiterates is that advocacy makes a difference. As other advocates face similar pushback from their states, they should draw heart from the effective campaign conducted in Louisiana, and call public attention to the short-sighted and counterproductive choice to deny needed food benefits to low-income individuals in areas of high unemployment.

SNAP is a critical support for millions of low-income Americans. It provides support for one of the most basic necessities of life. Let’s make sure that millions are not starting off the new year with uncertainty about how they will make ends meet this year without critical nutrition support.