House lawmakers approve stricter penalties for SNAP recipients

By Tazra Mitchell - N.C. Justice Center

House lawmakers undercut SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is the nation’s most important anti-hunger program and plays a critical role in ensuring that North Carolinians have enough to eat. They made it more difficult for those who receive SNAP to access this critical nutritional support by increasing disqualification periods to the maximum level allowed under federal law. The bill also requires the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate unreported lottery winnings in excess of $2,250 among SNAP recipients.

The approval comes just two weeks before some of North Carolina’s poorest adults, who are already living on the edge, stand to lose food assistance as the SNAP time limit returns to the state’s most-economically struggling counties. The time limit kicked in earlier this year for the 23 counties with healthier economies.

The bill that the House approved has three major sections:

1. The bill includes a work penalty provision. Under this bill, SNAP recipients that are not in compliance with work requirements would be disqualified from benefits for three months for the first issue of noncompliance, six months for the second instance, and permanently for three instances. Examples of work requirements include registering for work, participating in an employment and training program, and not voluntarily quitting a job or reducing hours to below 30 hours per week without good cause. Some people are exempted, such as children, older adults, and people unfit for work.

The reality is that 4 out of 5 SNAP participants are working or not expected to work. Nearly half of the folks on SNAP are children who—like older adults and people with a disability—are not expected to work. And work rates are high among SNAP households that can work. Rep. Bert Jones, the bill sponsor, amended the bill to only subject the head of household to the disqualification period to ensure that children are not penalized for the challenges that their parents’ face in finding work or staying on the job.

2. The bill requires the State Lottery Commission to report cash lottery winnings of $2,250 or more to the Department of Health and Human Services, who then must crosscheck that information with SNAP recipients on a monthly basis. If the department discovers that there has been a case of unreported winnings, staff would investigate the SNAP household to determine fraudulent misrepresentation, which can carry a criminal charge.

Proponents of the bill cited fraud as a motivator of this provision despite data that shows error rates are at a near modern low. Any amount of fraud is unacceptable. The lottery provision in this bill is in line with curbing fraud, and it is in line with federal law. However, it is worth nothing that less than 1 percent of SNAP benefits go to households that are ineligible, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. That means that 99 percent of SNAP benefits go to households whom SNAP is designed to help put food on the table. The lottery cases are overblown in the media.

3. The bill authorizes a legislative study to review a federal option called categorical eligibility, which allows some North Carolina families with modest assets and low incomes—but high expenses such as child care, rent, and utilities—to be eligible for federally-funded food benefits. This policy makes sense because it enhances efficiency, saves North Carolina money, and helps at least 22,000 low-income people become eligible for food aid. Eliminating categorical eligibility, as the original bill would have done, is a substantial policy change that requires significant study. As such, the bill sponsor was wise to convert this provision into a study.

Let’s hope that the study committee reviews the compelling body of evidence demonstrating the harsh impact such a change would have on families, the operations of social service offices, and the broader local economy.

In general, the bill continues a shift in state policy designed to eliminate and/or limit public assistance and eligibility to the minimum level that is allowed. Lawmakers axed a modest but vital working family tax credit, drastically cut jobless benefits, required drug testing for some recipients of cash assistance, banned state waivers from the harsh SNAP time limit, and now again have their sights set on scaling back food assistance.

It is important for lawmakers to pivot and focus just as much attention as they have had on dismantling the safety net to growing jobs, ensuring that adults have access to jobs that pay enough to afford the basics, and investing state money into job training programs that can help these jobless workers regain their footing on the economic ladder.

Tazra Mitchell is a policy analyst for the N.C. Budget & Tax Center.

By Tazra Mitchell

N.C. Justice Center

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