David A. Lieb

JEFFERSON CITY, MO.: More than 1 million low-income residents in 21 states could soon lose their government food stamps if they fail to meet work requirements that began kicking in this month.

The rule change in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program was triggered by the improving economy — specifically, falling unemployment. But it is raising concerns among the poor, social service providers and food pantry workers, who fear an influx of hungry people.

Recent experience in other states indicates that most of those affected will probably not meet the work requirements and will be cut off from food stamps.

For many people, “it means less food, less adequate nutrition. And over the span of time, that can certainly have an impact on health — and the health care system,” said Dave Krepcho, president and chief executive of the Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida.

Advocates say some adults trying to find work face a host of obstacles, including criminal records, disabilities or lack of a driver’s license.

The work-for-food requirements were first enacted under the 1996 welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton and sponsored by then-Rep. John Kasich, who is now Ohio’s governor and a Republican candidate for president.

The provision applies to able-bodied adults ages 18 through 49 who have no children or other dependents in their home. It requires them to work, volunteer or attend education or job-training courses at least 80 hours a month to receive food aid. If they don’t, their benefits are cut off after three months.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture can waive those work rules, either for entire states or certain counties and communities, when unemployment is high and jobs are scarce. Nearly every state was granted a waiver during the recession that began in 2008. But statewide waivers ended this month in at least 21 states, the largest group since the recession.

An Associated Press analysis of food aid figures shows that nearly 1.1 million adults stand to lose their benefits in those 21 states if they do not get a job or an exemption. That includes about 300,000 in Florida, 150,000 in Tennessee and 110,000 in North Carolina.

In Tennessee, Terry Work said her 27-year-old deaf son recently was denied disability payments, meaning he is considered able-bodied. And that means he stands to lose his food stamps, even though she said her son has trouble keeping a job because of his deafness.

“I know there’s going to be a lot of people in the county hurt by this,” said Work, founder of Helping Hands of Hickman County, a social service agency in a community about an hour west of Nashville.

Nationwide, some 4.7 million food stamp recipients are deemed able-bodied adults without dependents, according to USDA. Only 1 in 4 has any income from a job. They receive an average of $164 a month from the program.

In states that already have implemented the work requirements, many recipients have ended up losing their benefits.

Wisconsin began phasing in work requirements last spring. Of the 22,500 able-bodied adults who became subject to the change, two-thirds were dropped from the rolls three months later.

Ohio is one of 11 states with partial work waivers due to previous decisions.

A study of 4,145 food stamp recipients in Franklin County, Ohio, who became subject to work requirements between December 2013 and February 2015 found that more than 30 percent said they had physical or mental limitations that affected their ability to work. And 61 percent lacked a driver’s license.