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Oklahoma House speaker scales back food stamp work requirement

House Speaker T.W. Shannon has scaled back requirements on food stamp eligibility, but some Oklahomans who receive the benefits say lawmakers have the wrong perception of them.
BY MICHAEL MCNUTT AND ADAM KEMP Published: March 8, 2013

A measure that would have required able-bodied Oklahoma recipients of food stamps to perform at least 35 hours of work activities to receive food stamps is being scaled back.

But people receiving the benefits say lawmakers have the wrong perception about them.

“It sounds like they are trying to get rid of the lazy,” Chris Steele said. “In reality, most of these people can't find a job for good reasons. There are some that try and take advantage of the system, but the majority really need it.”

Steele, 31, said Thursday he was just recently able to obtain a full-time job in customer service. When he was out of work for five months last year, he was able to provide for himself and his daughter, with whom he has visitation rights every other weekend, by getting $150 in food benefits a month.

House Speaker T.W. Shannon has filed an amendment to his measure, House Bill 1909, that would reinstate a 1996 federal requirement that able-bodied persons without dependents must work at least 20 hours a week or participate in a work program to be eligible to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In 2009, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, which administers the program, sought and was granted a waiver from that requirement.

“Working takes care of a lot of problems,” Shannon said Thursday. “It's amazing what eight hours of hard work will do, how many social problems it takes care of. The best social program in the world is hard work.”

Shannon, R-Lawton, said he lowered the requirement after discussing his proposal with other GOP House members.

“It's still got to work its way through the Senate, and it could change again,” he said.

House Minority Leader Scott Inman, D-Del City, who opposed the 35-hour work activity requirement, said the amended bill appears more reasonable.

“I think that that's something that we can probably find some common ground on there,” Inman said. “I think it goes back to the legislative intent. It's not punitive toward families with children, which his original piece of legislation was. … He would have faced stiff opposition to that legislation and so therefore we're grateful that he saw it wise to roll back those draconian efforts and instead simply focus on the original intent of the '96 Welfare Reform Act and require those who can work to do so.”

Shannon said he has received mostly support since HB 1909 won committee approval last month.

“The emails and the response I've gotten from constituents in my district have been, ‘'Atta boy, we all know of people that abuse the system,'” he said. “This bill is narrowly tailored, narrowly focused to able-bodied adults. There's no excuse that that person without children, why they couldn't do at least 20 hours of work.”

Change causes delay

HB 1909 was scheduled to be heard on the House floor this week, but Shannon's floor amendment caused a delay.

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