An advisory panel wants the state to expand the definition of work so that community service as well as paid employment qualifies able-bodied low-income people for food stamps.
Meeting in Boise on Thursday, a committee working on welfare reform issues made the recommendation to Health and Welfare Director Linda Caballero to ease the impact of new regulations in areas where there are substantial numbers of jobless people.
The department said that would cover about 2,200 people statewide.
In December, a new federal food stamp work requirement went into effect, covering adults between 18 and 50 who do not have dependent children and who are mentally and physically capable of working.
Idaho did not ask for a waiver of that restriction. The office of Gov. Phil Batt said the governor has received more than 100 letters urging him to seek a waiver so more people could get food stamps.
Assistant Lindy High said Batt has no opinion whether the state should go after a waiver but simply is seeking more information.
To receive food stamps, adults in that category must work at least 80 hours a month, participate in and meet requirements of a specified employment or training program for at least 20 hours a week or participate in and comply with requirements of a workfare program.
Adults getting food stamps who do not meet the work requirement are eligible for food stamps only three months in a three-year period.
The exceptions are pregnant women, people caring for an incapacitated person and students enrolled at least half time in any recognized school, training program or institute for higher education.
Other exceptions are applicants for supplemental Social Security income, participants in a drug or alcohol treatment program, people receiving unemployment benefits and recipients of Aid to Families With Dependent Children using the program’s employment and training opportunities.
Representatives of the Idaho Hunger Action Council, Idaho Citizens Network and other social groups urged the board to seek a waiver. But some members of the advisory committee felt that simply granting food stamps to able-bodied adults would do nothing to encourage people to get off welfare, which is the thrust of current welfare reform.
The panel eventually voted unanimously to seek a new definition of work to include community service, although some members argued in small towns, the opportunities for community service are few.
“How do you break the cycle of dependency?” asked state Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. “The longer people are on food stamps, the longer they will be on welfare.”
Committee member Denise Baird said even if people stay in a certain area to look for a job, they shouldn’t have to go without food.
“What incentive do we give them to go out and find a job?” asked state Sen. Gordon Crow, R-Hayden. “What’s the incentive if we say, ‘If you stay here, we will continue to feed you.’ “
“I just want them to eat while they are looking for that job,” Baird said.
Loertscher, former Bonneville County commissioner, said his county used to pay rent for low-income families, with no strings attached. The county was spending about $10,000 per month on it, he said.
The county then started requiring recipients to work for their benefits. The amount requested fell to $1,000 per month as people apparently decided that if they had to work to get benefits, they might as well get a job.
“As long as there was a freebie out there, they were willing to take it,” he said.
Mikey Krajcer with Idaho Hunger Action Council said it would take at least a year to set up a voluntary work program to qualify for food stamps.