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.
It will be heard next week, the last week in which measures filed in the House can be heard on whether to advance to the Senate.
An able-bodied adult without dependents with no income could receive up to $50 a week, or $7.15 a day, in SNAP benefits, according to a DHS spokesman. The paper food stamps were replaced years ago with a debit card.
Currently, an able-bodied adult without dependents can get SNAP benefits for only three months in a 36-month period if they do not work or participate in a workfare or employment and training program other than job search, said Mark Beutler, a DHS spokesman.
The maximum amount that a single able-bodied person can make to be eligible for benefits is $1,211 a month, or $14,532 a year. For a four-member household, the maximum income is $2,498 a month or $29,976; the maximum food benefits that family could receive is $167 a week, or $668 a month.
Shannon's original bill, which called for those who are between the ages of 18 to 50 and who are not disabled or raising a child to perform at least 35 hours of work activities to receive food stamps, has been scaled back. Activities include job seeking and career training, volunteer work and/or education directly related to employment opportunities.
What bill will cost
A fiscal analysis by House staff estimated the cost of implementing Shannon's original bill would be $18.8 million a year to pay for additional staff, developing work components, contractual costs, training and system changes. Shannon's amended bill has zero additional cost, according to House staff.
Shannon's HB 1909, along with another measure, HB 2014, is causing anxiety among some who receive SNAP benefits. HB 2014, which also is expected to be heard next week in the House, would disqualify people with felony drug convictions from receiving the benefits. It also would make those who have more than $5,000 in cash, in a bank account or in stocks and bonds ineligible to receive food benefits.
Concerns about future
Those sitting in the dingy waiting room at a DHS center off Kelley Avenue said Thursday they are trying to figure out how to put dinner on the table.
Ruby Bray has two children and, with another on the way. The 30-year old woman said a felony conviction in 2003 for intent to distribute a controlled dangerous substance has ended with most of her job applications being tossed.
Bray said the SNAP food benefits are enough to feed her children every night as it stands now, but she is scared the measures — if they become law — could keep food out of her children's mouths.
“I've tried to find work and I've tried to get a job but nobody wants to hire an ex-con,” she said. “I know that's my fault but that was 10 years ago. I'm just trying to start over new and survive now.”