More than 1,000 low-income residents in Spokane County could lose their food stamps beginning April 1, but sorting out exactly who will be cut is creating chaos.
Although they have been warned, many food stamp recipients don’t realize how soon they could lose their benefits or have been told not to worry about the deadline.
“Nobody knows what’s going on,” said Al Brislain, director of the Spokane Food Bank.
His agency has been trying for months to predict the impact of cuts in food stamps, the federal program that ensures nobody starves in this country. But state social workers have been unable to provide clear numbers.
The cuts were approved by Congress last year as part of welfare reform. The federal government is eliminating the dozen or so different programs designed to help the indigent.
Now, each state will get a single chunk of money from Congress to dole out to those in need. Along with that block of money is a new set of regulations about who can receive assistance and for how long.
The Personal and Responsibility Work Act declares that all unemployed adults without children can receive food stamps for just 90 days every three years.
The law went into effect on New Year’s Day and the April 1 deadline is looming.
Counties with high unemployment or an insufficient source of jobs can be exempt from the rule. In Eastern Washington, only Spokane and Whitman counties are currently covered by the law.
More than 1,000 of the 16,829 Spokane County families receiving food stamps could be affected.
The food stamp cuts are just the latest reductions in aid to the poor as states and the federal government struggle with welfare reform.
Mary Matthews, 21, of Spokane has seen her monthly food coupons cut from $297 to $197. She moved into a woman’s shelter, where she and several other mothers pool their resources to make the food last a month.
“I learned how to make a casserole out of Top Ramen noodles,” Matthews said. “It costs like a dollar, and I even have leftovers.”
Matthews and her 5-month-old son James are secure with their scaled-back food stamp benefits.
Carla Mateer, 23, and her husband Eugene are not. Their food stamps benefits also have declined. “First we got $92 a month, then $72, then $20,” Carla Mateer said.
She works full time as a housekeeper for Cavanaugh’s Inns. At $6 an hour, her wages barely cover the couple’s monthly bills.
Because her husband is out of work, the couple does not think they will qualify for food stamps under the new law and will not apply.
But others who have been told they will lose their food stamps are not worried.
Janna Johnson, 46, lives in a trailer in the Valley and gets $46 a month in food coupons. She combines that with her late husband’s monthly Social Security checks of $296 and manages “to keep from starving.”
She got two notices in the last three months warning her to report to the state employment office to start working on a job search.
“Every couple years, sometimes even more than that, you’ve got to jump through their hoops, to keep your benefits,” she said.
Because the idea of her, an “over-the-hill, occasionally depressed, recovering alcoholic,” working, is so ludicrous, she ignored the notice.
So did almost everybody else who received the warning, said Terry Covey, a program manager at DSHS.
“The letters were pretty clear,” he said. “They basically said if you don’t work, you can’t get food stamps.”
Yet virtually none of the recipients showed up at the state employment office as directed to start a job search or a work training program.
One possible explanation is that DSHS has been less than clear with various non-profit agencies that help the poor about whether the cuts were imminent.
“The whole thing has been put on hold as far as I know,” said Marilee Roloff, director of Volunteers of America.
“This is all very fluid,” said Sally Pritchard, of Columbia Legal Services, which advocates for the poor at the Legislature. “What we’ve been told is that as these individuals come up for recertification, they will be reclassified so they can continue to receive their benefits.”
That’s what many people at DSHS thought too, Covey said. The federal law states that able-bodied adults with no children have to work, participate in a job training program, volunteer 20 hours a week, or participate in a state program called workfare.
Workfare was supposed to be a partnership between the state and non-profit groups that would channel volunteers to appropriate jobs throughout the community. But there was no money so the program was canned, Covey said.
Work program or not, the law still stands, Covey said. If recipients want to keep their food stamps, they have to work for them.
Still, DSHS officials say the cuts will be done on a case-by-case basis. Welfare recipients say that means they are at the mercy of the social worker who performs their review.
“If they like you, you get benefits, that’s as near as I can figure it,” Carla Mateer said.
For those who are cut off, if they can document that they volunteered 80 hours in one month, they will be reinstated.
Eugene Mateer weighs the possibility of volunteering. He could do it, but that would eliminate a lot of time he has to look for work. And the spring construction season is just getting under way, where he stands a good chance of getting work.
Plus he and his wife walk everywhere from their north side apartment. Their budget does not even allow for bus fare. His Dodge Aspen sits in the parking lot, broken down.
“It sounds like what they want is to just make people like me go away,” he said. “I think it’s working.”
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