Up to 10,000 people in Mecklenburg County could lose their food stamp benefits by the spring if they’re unable to prove they work, volunteer or take classes for at least 20 hours a week.
The change in eligibility is causing a stir among Charlotte-area nonprofits and charities, which are bracing for the tide of people they expect to lean on them for support should they lose their assistance.
The federal requirement for work and volunteer hours applies to adults under 50 without children or a disability. In North Carolina, an exemption was created in 2008 during the recession.
The exemption ended Jan. 1 for 23 counties across the state, including several in the Charlotte region: Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln and Union. Statewide, 115,000 people will have to document work, volunteer or education activities by April 1 if they want to keep their benefits.
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Recipients can still get up to three months of food stamps without meeting the new standards, and the numbers in Mecklenburg could shift if officials discover some recipients fit other exemptions, such as being pregnant or chronically homeless, said Men Tchaas Ari, economic services director for the county’s Department of Social Services.
This is a vulnerable … often transient population.
Natalia Botella, attorney with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont
But for those not in that category, the change could make applying for food stamps burdensome, said Natalia Botella, an attorney with Legal Services of Southern Piedmont.
“I worry about making the system more and more complex,” she said, adding that losing the exemption might discourage people from seeking benefits if they are unaware of other eligibility criteria, such as participation in a substance abuse program. “This is a vulnerable … often transient population.”
Meeting the requirement within the next three months could be tough for recipients unable to find employment, sufficient volunteer opportunities or adequate transportation, said Tazra Mitchell, policy analyst with the liberal N.C. Budget and Tax Center.
“It might be easier to find a volunteer opportunity in Charlotte … (but) finding a nonprofit where you can work a full 20 hours a week is hard to come by for the specific population we’re talking about,” she said. “If they don’t find one, they’re out of luck.”
To ease the transition, Mecklenburg DSS is piloting an employment and training program with community agencies to help put food stamp recipients “in a better position to seek employment,” Ari said.
Following suit is Gaston County, where about 3,500 people may have to present pay stubs, class schedules or statements from a volunteer group or employer as proof they can receive benefits, said Cindy Little, economic services coordinator for Gaston’s Health and Human Services Department.
Caseworkers have taken a flood of calls from residents who received letters about the requirement last year. That influx has slowed, but employees are preparing for added workload while promoting the agency’s monthly job fairs, she said.
Meeting the needs
The exemption’s removal has prompted some nonprofits to mobilize. Others are concerned their resources could be taxed.
Charlotte Works, which administers federally recognized workforce development programs, is working with Mecklenburg County DSS to plan resource fairs and information sessions for recipients who need jobs, said operations director Danielle Frazier.
This is a totally unforeseen thing that will definitely stress our budgeted line items for food.
Beverly Howard, Loaves & Fishes executive director
The group operates three career centers, where people can search for jobs, draft résumés and consult with career coaches. It’s unclear how many of the people visiting now are there because of the food stamp requirements, Frazier said.
Beverly Howard, executive director of Loaves & Fishes, said the change could have a substantial impact. “This is a totally unforeseen thing that will definitely stress our budgeted line items for food,” she said.
The ministry supplies a week’s worth of groceries to people in crisis through a network of 20 pantries. But it can only do that once every 45 days, Howard said.
“That’s going to help folks out the first month, and maybe the third month,” she said. “But the months in between, they’re going to have to find some other resources.”
B.R.E.A.D. Inc., a Christian-based food bank in Gastonia that feeds about 1,000 people a month, expects its clientele to grow and volunteer base to expand, said spokeswoman Jill Moore.
About half of the charity’s clientele already receive food stamps but seek extra help. Aside from relying on faith, Moore said the group is unsure how it will bolster its resources to meet any new demand.
“We just trust God to provide, and he does. As need increases, he just takes care of us,” she said.
Gloria Barrino, director of Union County Crisis Assistance Ministry in Monroe, said the benefits change will likely “increase the volume of people knocking at our doors, struggling to keep food on the table.”
The agency expects to provide emergency food to 500 families this year. Barrino predicts that number will climb.
“The issue we will have is resources,” she said. “If there’s going to be any obstacle or roadblock with people receiving public assistance, you can expect our numbers to double.”
(Raleigh) News & Observer staff writer Colin Campbell contributed.