Alabama State Capitol
The Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery, Alabama. The state legislature is poised to revoke basic food assistance from 7,000 of its residents later this year. Credit: Stuart Seegar/Flickr

Gilbertown is the most generous place in America, says Mayor Billy C. May.

“Everybody kind of works together to help people who need it,” he said.

Deep in the Black Belt of Alabama, in Choctaw County, Gilbertown has a population of about 200 people. May knows most of them.

“If the whole United States was like Choctaw and especially Gilbertown, Alabama, this would be a great nation,” he said. “We get along as a people, associate with one another, and hug one another’s neck,” said May, using a Southern expression meaning to display one’s affection.

Five years ago, May and his wife joined with another couple from the Baptist church to launch a food pantry. He funded the opening, and runs the pantry from a small shopping center in town. In April, the State of Alabama will further test May’s generosity: seven thousand adults, including 309 in Choctaw County, will lose eligibility for basic food assistance.

Those adults will join an estimated one million people nationwide, 35,000 of them in Alabama, who lost benefits in the last year because of renewed enforcement of a law that requires adults without children to work to receive food assistance.

Conservatives cite the law, a provision of 1996 welfare reform, as a model for requiring work and empowering local efforts to fight poverty at the expense of federal bureaucrats. However, the implementation in Alabama—and across the country—shows that political ideology has made food access for the poor increasingly tenuous while undermining the very local leaders it’s intended to help.

“A lot of the time we’re talking about disabled folks, homeless folks—it’s very hard to reach them,” said Laura Lester, Executive Director of the Alabama Food Bank Association. “That’s what’s so heartbreaking.”

Over the last fifty years, the public dialogue about low-income Americans has become increasingly characterized by stinginess, focusing on poor people as lazy or cheating, even as a large portion of recipients of public assistance work. The public policy followed. In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act decimated cash assistance: Aid to Families with Dependent Children was reformed into Temporary Aid for Needy Families, tightening eligibility and requiring that recipients work.

One controversial provision, included by then-Rep. John Kasich (R-OH) and Rep. Rob Ney (R-OH), altered the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), then known as food stamps. It limited childless adults under the age of 50 to three months of assistance over a three-year period, unless they study or work for more than 20 hours per week.

That means that even those childless adults who temporarily lose employment, or work part time, have time-limited eligibility for food assistance.

Most of these adults cycle in and out of work. Others have undiagnosed health issues, or criminal records that make finding employment difficult, according to the limited available data.

“A lot of the time we’re talking about disabled folks, homeless folks—it’s very hard to reach them,” said Laura Lester, Executive Director of the Alabama Food Bank Association. “That’s what’s so heartbreaking.”

Between 2009 and 2015, the Obama administration effectively suspended the work requirements, when the recession made it even more difficult for these childless adults to find work. The administration tied the return of work requirement to the economic recovery. With decreasing unemployment rates, most states lost eligibility for statewide waivers.

The states could request exemptions to the work requirements using five criteria, most related to the unemployment rate. In places with few available jobs, people should not be punished for their inability to find jobs, the rule suggests.

While the national unemployment rate has plummeted to below five percent, Alabama has recovered more slowly.

Last year, Alabama received waivers for 13 of approximately 20 eligible counties. In the counties without waivers, 35,000 people lost food assistance. Alabama knows little about where those people have gone for food.

“We wouldn’t have any way of knowing what happened with them,” said Barry Spear, the spokesman for Alabama’s Department of Human Resources, which administers SNAP in the state.

While the national unemployment rate has plummeted to below five percent, Alabama has recovered more slowly. The unemployment rate hovers near 6 percent, with much higher levels in rural communities. This year, the state could have requested waivers for at least 34 counties.

Instead, the state legislature brought pressure on the executive branch to cut off all adults without children.

State Senator Arthur Orr introduced legislation that would have prohibited the state from requesting additional waivers. While the bill did not pass, state officials went from requesting waivers in 13 counties in 2016 to none for 2017.

At the beginning of the year, the state sent letters to 7,000 SNAP recipients letters describing the conditions under which they can continue to receive food benefits. On April 1, the state will take away food benefits from any of the 7,000 who fail to meet the requirements.

That includes people in Choctaw County, where the unemployment rate is nearly nine percent. Only one paper mill remains from an economy once anchored by textiles.

“We live in the heart of the poorest part of Alabama,” said Mayor May, who was born in the county.

And Choctaw County is better off than its neighbors. In nearby Wilcox County, the unemployment rate is 15.6 percent. In April, 473 Wilcox residents will no longer receive SNAP.

Spear said that the economic recovery made waivers no longer necessary. But the state unemployment rate has barely budged since last year, remaining near 6 percent. And, in six of the 13 counties that lost waivers, the unemployment rate has either grown or not changed in the last year. The department wants to encourage work, but will not offer extra training in those 13 counties.

Stretching Charity Beyond its Resources

Throughout Alabama, the government works in tandem with charities to provide a safety net for the poor.

When SNAP benefits run out at the end of the month, churches and nonprofits step in. With cuts to the safety net, said Rachel Sheffield of the Heritage Foundation, civic institutions should step in to make sure that no one goes hungry. But charities, particularly in rural areas, are already stretched, and may not be able to pick up the slack from further cuts.

“I hear folks say, ‘the charitable response to hunger.’ You should go talk to someone doing that work, because you would understand that they honestly don’t have anything left to give,” Lester said.

At the end of 2015, Alabama’s statewide waiver expired, and 35,000 people in 54 counties received notices that they had only a few months left of SNAP benefits. Churches and nonprofits in the places that could no longer cover childless adults noticed increased demand. In Winston County, at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Main Street Ministry saw a surge of younger adults, said Jim Baird, who directs operations. After the waivers expired, the ministry saw as many as 15 new recipients per week.

Main Street Ministries is one of 1,700 food distribution sites in Alabama that provide monthly packages meant to supplement, but not replace public benefits.

For a single adult, Baird’s Main Street Ministry provides eight canned goods, plus bread and produce. Occasionally, when Wal-Mart has a surplus, they’ll have chicken gizzards or pig ears. “It’s not supposed to serve them for a month, it’s to help them,” Baird said.

For the seven counties that will lose waivers in the coming months, the state has no plan to ensure that the people cut off from SNAP can find other food sources.

In Choctaw County, where Mayor May lives, about one in five households receive public food assistance. May did not know about the coming work requirements, which may soon remove more than 300 people from SNAP in his county.

He says that his food pantry will expand to serve anyone who needs food. But while May knows many of the elderly recipients of food assistance, he is not as close to the younger recipients who will lose benefits.

It’s unclear how they will find May’s pantry.

SNAP Requirement for Adults as a Model?

Serving more than 40 million Americans, SNAP is just one of an estimated 89 federal programs that provide low-income people with food, housing, and medicine.

The Heritage Foundation’s Rachel Sheffield cites SNAP work requirements as a model for the rest of the safety net. She supports a bill introduced by Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. James Jordan of Ohio, which would require SNAP recipients with children to work in order to receive benefits.

“If someone is capable of work and they choose not to do it, there’s only so much you can do,” she said.

Before the inauguration, The Hill reported that the Trump administration would be using the Heritage Foundation’s budget blueprint, which suggests that SNAP recipients should work “as a condition of receiving assistance.” An early budget memo suggests many of the same programs mentioned in the blueprint.

Speaker Paul Ryan has not announced legislation for this Congress, but in a December speech at the American Enterprise Institute, he emphasized work requirements and state flexibility. The House Agriculture Committee also released a report in December, which called for deeper enforcement of existing SNAP work requirements.

The Heritage Foundation cites two, heavily-disputed studies in arguing that work requirements are effective. Those studies say nothing about whether people kicked off SNAP received food. Ryan, known for being a policy wonk, would have to propose risking food for 40 million people on little to no evidence.

No advocate in Alabama argues against helping poor people find work. Both Baird and May expressed sympathy with the decision to not seek additional waivers. But none want to do so at the expense of a safety net.

“When people lose their benefits like that, it can be catastrophic for the entire community,” said Laura Lester, of the Food Bank Association.

Max Rose

Max Rose is a freelance writer and the Strategy and Partnerships Consultant at The Workers Lab.