Reed, a man in his late 60s with crumbling teeth and a red stocking cap, was selling watermelons, pineapples and peanuts on a recent Friday afternoon in the parking lot of Little Howie’s Burger and Chic on the main highway of Bamberg, a swampy little South Carolina town about 20 miles off I-95.
A disabled veteran who collects disability and food stamps, Reed doesn’t work, except for when he can hustle a little extra scratch at the fruit stand he runs with a 74-year-old wheelchair-bound woman named Jeanette Woods who comes down seasonally from New York. But she’s headed back up north, and Reed doesn’t know what he’ll do now. His government benefits cover his rent, utilities and cable. He says he gets a small amount each month in food stamps. He doesn’t have a phone. He says it’s difficult to find work opportunities in the area where he’s lived off and on for his whole life.
“The average person now, by the time he gets through paying his bills, he ain’t got nothing, he’s actually in the hole,” says Reed, who didn’t want to give his last name and asked for his photo not to be published. “It’s rough, man, rough.”
In Bamberg and two other nearby counties, the situation for those who need the government’s help to eat is about to get even rougher if a proposal by the state Department of Social Services — backed by Bamberg native Gov. Nikki Haley — gets a green light from the federal government.
The controversial new plan, called SNAP Work 2 Health, is a mandatory job-search program for food stamp applicants.
SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and is the official name of the government’s anti-hunger initiative that helps poor people buy groceries. The plan already calls for some food-stamp recipients to look for work, such as adults between 18 and 49 who don’t have children and aren’t disabled. The new program would add those requirements to work-eligible adults who have children over age 6, hitting about 8,600 additional recipients in Bamberg, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties, a distressed part of the state known as the Corridor of Shame because of its failing schools and poverty. New SNAP applicants would have to prove they’re spending at least 30 hours a week for up to 90 days looking for a job, or prove they already have one, before they can get their benefits. The plan would affect about a quarter of food stamp recipients in those counties.
But for South Carolina to move forward with its tougher proposal, the state must ask for a waiver from the feds to change its food stamp policy, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s office of Food & Nutrition Service is currently working closely with state officials as it decides whether to grant it.
On its face, the program might not sound so bad: If you want public assistance, why not prove you’re out looking for a job? But critics of the plan worry it might be unrealistic in an area of the state where jobless rates are some of the highest around.
But that’s precisely part of the reason why DSS Director Lillian Koller picked the three counties to test her proposed pilot program for the next three years, according to the waiver. DSS Deputy State Director Amber Gillum, who is listed as the contact on the waiver, didn’t respond to emails or voicemails by the time this story went to press. But the reason DSS gave the feds for wanting to implement the program in the three-county area is because residents there suffer from a disproportionately high level of unemployment and obesity. And the new initiative, according to the DSS waiver proposal, would help poor people living in those counties who rely on food stamps to find work and lose weight. The proposal comes at a time when Haley is wrangling her state agencies in a statewide initiative to tackle obesity.
On March 10, Koller sent a letter to the USDA’s Food & Nutrition Service laying out her agency’s new work-requirement plan and asking the feds to give it the OK. Since then, a few news outlets have written about it, but the general population — particularly in the target counties — is likely unaware of the program’s specifics. Critics of the plan, such as lawmakers and advocates for the low-income community, say it unfairly demonizes some of the state’s poorest citizens.
“It’s just not thought-out,” says Sue Berkowitz, who as director of the Columbia-based South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center fights for low-income families in the court system and at the State House. “It’s just a reaction to, ‘Oh, people are poor and on SNAP because they don’t want to work.’ It’s not that people don’t want to work — they want to work — it’s just that there’s no work available or they don’t have the resources to get to a job.”
That’s a viewpoint shared by those aware of the plan who question its efficacy: Are there enough jobs in those three rural counties to make the program worthwhile, or for some, could searching for a job be, as Democratic Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter puts it, an effort in futility?
A social work administrator and a consistent voice for the working class in the Legislature, Cobb-Hunter doesn’t take any pride in admitting that looking for a job in her own county of Orangeburg might be a fruitless task.
“I have absolutely no problem with requiring adult recipients of food stamps to look for work,” she says. “But there ought to be realistic expectations, and there ought to be realistic opportunities in that job search.”
Based on data from DSS, about 8,600 people in the three affected counties would be subject to the new mandatory work-search requirements each year. According to SCWorks.org, an online database that lists job opportunities and is administered by the state, as of May 9, there were 152 job openings in Bamberg County, 972 job offerings in Orangeburg County, and 40 open jobs in Calhoun County. That’s a total of 1,164 available jobs in the three-county area. SCWorks also shows supply and demand data for counties based on job openings and unemployment statistics. For Bamberg County there are 2.27 unemployed people for every job opening; in Calhoun County there are 5.59 unemployed people for every open job; and in Orangeburg County there are 2.03 people looking for work per available job.
Clearly, job seekers could venture outside their home counties for work, and the figures from SCWorks likely don’t list every available job opening in the region. But the numbers offer a snapshot of the economic opportunities in the area where many poor people who rely on food stamps live.
Like others critical of the new plan, Cobb-Hunter feels there could be better ways to help those on food stamps stretch their budgets and eat better, such as the government working with grocery stores or mini marts, and addressing areas known as food deserts.
For its part, DSS has said the agency has been helping South Carolinians on food stamps find jobs, and will continue to do so if the feds grant the waiver.
Out of Context?
In her March 10 letter requesting a waiver from the feds, DSS Director Koller cited a 2009 Ohio State University study that found people who receive SNAP benefits gained more weight than those not on SNAP, and the longer they stayed on food stamps the more weight they gained. Koller and DSS explained that the agency believed implementing a new mandatory job-search requirement would essentially get more people off food stamps by finding work, which would make them healthier.
Jay Zagorsky, the author of the Ohio State study, says no one from South Carolina government reached out to him about his findings. While he says he can’t prove that food stamp usage causes weight gain, the study does suggest there’s a strong link.
That said, Zagorsky thinks South Carolina’s DSS agency might be taking his research a little out of context. He doesn’t necessarily think getting people off food stamps will automatically make them healthier eaters.
“I was suggesting that maybe the government should think about actually providing a little bit more money,” he says about food stamp programs.
But still, his findings in the study are what they are.
“The problem is, we don’t have any good controlled studies for why the longer you are on food stamps the more weight you gain,” he says.
One supposition he’s been working with is that people on food stamps end up binge eating. Food stamp values are generally low, and often those on them will buy the bulk of what they can at the beginning of each month when they get their benefits, he says. As the month drags on they have less and less to spend, and by the end might have nothing. The cycle starts over again the following month when they get their benefits.
“And then you sort of binge on a lot of empty calories: pasta, beans, these kinds of things,” he says.
But Zargosky says he’s interested in the results of South Carolina’s program — if the feds allow it.
“I can’t prove that it won’t work,” he says. “Personally I think what’s driving obesity factors are other factors than what they’re highlighting from my paper, but I can’t tell the governor ‘No, you’re wrong.’”
Proposal Considered “Unique”
The new proposal comes after a public backlash last year when Haley attempted to implement a different SNAP policy wherein food stamps could only be used to buy healthy foods. The governor wanted soda, candy bars and other foods high in sugar and low in fiber off the food stamps list, but she backpedaled from the idea after holding a series of meetings throughout the state with food stamp recipients, public health advocates and other stakeholders. The feds didn’t grant that waiver.
Officials at the USDA say they are currently working with DSS to collect enough information about the new program — which the federal agency called “unique” — to decide whether to allow it.
One source close to DSS, who had at one point been in talks about the new program, says state agency officials talked about a possible public relations plan should the federal government deny the latest waiver. The plan involved publicly urging First Lady Michelle Obama to step in on behalf of South Carolina because of her high-profile push for healthy eating.
“Don’t Make No Sense”
Back at the parking lot fruit stand in Bamberg, Reed doesn’t like the sound of the new food stamp proposal that would hit recipients in his home county. He says it seems like state government is making it sound like the community has so much to offer if only people would be willing to look.
“The younger people, the ones that want a job ... there’s no jobs available,” he says. “If they make it harder, how are they helping the community? It don’t make no sense.”
By the Numbers
Food stamp usage
In the fall of 2013, there were 37,646 people on food stamps in Bamberg, Calhoun and Orangeburg counties. Of those, 13,781 were adults who were eligible to work, and 6,081 were able-bodied adults without dependents.
Bamberg County: 9.1 percent
3rd highest of the state’s 46 counties
Calhoun County: 5.5 percent
Orangeburg County: 8.1 percent
Average number of new food stamp applicants per month
Bamberg County: 100
Calhoun County: 75
Orangeburg County: 744
Average number of cases closed each month because of increased income
Bamberg County: 52
Calhoun County: 1
Orangeburg County: 16
Sources: S.C. Department of Social Services and Department of Employment and Workforce
Today’s story is a project of Free Times and Statehouse Report that is being reported in both publications.
Let us know what you think: Email firstname.lastname@example.org.