Utah's economy remains stalled with tens of thousands of jobless Utahns which is why anti-hunger advocates are alarmed about the state's plan to reinstitute limits on how long so-called "able-bodied" adults without minor children can receive food stamps.
In October, the Utah Department of Workforce Services (DWS) plans to reimpose a federal rule that allows adults ages 18 to 49 to receive food stamps for only three months within a 36-month period unless they meet certain requirements. The federal government suspended the time limit, in place since 1996, as high unemployment rates rocked the nation, but will restore the policy as of Oct. 1. However, areas with continuing high unemployment rates have the option of postponing the time limit for another year.
Utah doesn't plan to do so. Advocates have launched a petition asking Utah Gov. Gary Herbert to intercede and request the waiver.
"We believe it is unfair to penalize people for being unable to find employment in this economy," said Bill Tibbitts, associate director at Crossroads Urban Center. "This rule is particularly harsh for people living in areas with high unemployment like Ogden and St. George."
Curt Stewart, DWS spokesman, said the department plans to reinstitute the rule, which it suspended in April 2009, because it's "pretty much employment focused." It plans to schedule public hearings sometime after July, when it will file the proposed change.
"We decided not to apply for that because of the lowering unemployment rates," Stewart said. "We believe we can get these folks back into training programs and back into jobs. There are lots of ways to get these people engaged again."
Stewart was unable to provide an immediate count of the number of Utahns who would be affected by the policy.
Utah's unemployment rate is 6 percent, which translates to approximately 80,000 people who are unable to find jobs. But it is much higher in some counties, such as Wayne, where unemployment reached 12 percent in April.
Suspension of the time limit during the Great Recession is one of the things that kept Nathan Cram of Salt Lake City afloat during the past four years.
He quit a full-time job in July 2008 just as the economy tanked.
"I had no idea what was about to happen with the economy," said Cram, who lives in Salt Lake City and has a bachelor's degree in mass communications from the University of Utah.
Two months later, when he still hadn't found a new job, Cram applied for food stamps and has relied on them to get by.
He volunteered at Crossroads food co-op, through Americorps' Vista Program, and received a small stipend, but it wasn't enough to bump him off the federal food program.
The good news is Cram starts a new data entry job Tuesday. "If they had [limited participation] sooner, that would have been it," Cram said.
In the past, Utah has waived the time limit for pregnant women; people living in highly impacted counties (Garfield, Grand, San Juan and Wayne); and those who are mentally or physically unfit for employment. Any month in which a recipient worked an average of 80 hours a month, participated in certain volunteer programs or received help from the Refugee Cash Assistance Program did not count against the three-month limit. Utah also extended benefits for individuals participating in certain employment and training programs and offered a $50 work reimbursement stipend to help cover job-search expenses.
Some of those same exemptions, in place before April 1, 2009, when the policy was suspended, may be included in the new rule.
In another policy change that took effect this week, the department will no longer allow people who are exempt from required training programs such as those who live 35 miles from a training center, are temporarily laid off, lack child care or are homeless to voluntarily enroll in the programs or be eligible for the reimbursement stipend.
"The program has not been effective in returning people to work and is expensive to administer," a rule-change notice states.
Tibbitts said the stipend was critical for low-income and homeless people for whom transportation is an issue.
"If you have to walk several miles to get to an interview, you're not going to interview as well," he said.