Beginning Friday, up to a million Americans will lose access to food stamps over the course of the year.
The plunge in provision will not be due to the usual suspect — budget cuts — but rather the return of work requirements.
Since the 1990s, the federal government has required food stamp recipients to fulfill a work requirement in order to receive them for more than three months. But during the recession and its aftermath, those requirements were suspended out of concern that it was unfair to demand work in a period of high unemployment. Now that growth and jobs numbers are stronger, the requirements are locking back into place at a rapid pace.
As the Washington Post reports, work requirements will be reinstated in 22 states in 2016, and is estimated to cause between half a million and a million people who fit certain criteria — able-bodied, without children — to lose their benefits.
In the map made by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities below, you can see the states reinstating work requirements for the first time since the recession. Other states have already put them back in place. By the end of the year, 40 states will have strict time limits on how long people can receive food stamps without fulfilling work requirements, according to the CBPP.
Not all states reintroducing work requirements have had their economies bounce back enough that they're being forced by the federal government to return to work requirements. Instead, they're choosing to give up their exemption anyway. Why? Mainly because of local political cultures that tend to look upon the social safety net with a skeptical eye, and believe that work requirements will discourage laziness. As the Post notes, in 2016, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia's economies are weak enough to remain exempt from work requirements, but the states are reinstating them anyway.
Is it fair? The labor markets in a lot of the states that have recovered more slowly are probably less healthy than they appear. There are plenty of towns in the U.S. where structural problems in the local economy have devastated people's job prospects so much that they've dropped out of the job search altogether, and don't even show up in unemployment numbers.
But even in towns and states where it's not extremely difficult to find a job, there's little evidence that making someone hungrier makes them any better at finding a job. And the option for people to use job training programs to opt out of work requirements isn't particularly effective because few states offer enough of them to their residents.
It's good news that the economy is strong enough to put most people to work again. But punishing those who haven't been able to seems like a step in the wrong direction.