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Utah Reconsiders Work Requirements for Food Assistance

The number of people getting food assistance from Utah’s SNAP program has significantly declined over the past two years. State officials credit improvements in the economy and employment, but some advocates for the poor say it also has to do with work requirements that make it harder for people to receive benefits.

Nic Dunn is a spokesperson for Utah Department of Workforce Services, and when he looks at the decline in SNAP caseloads, he sees evidence that the state is climbing out of the recession.

“We’re now below 4 percent unemployment here in Utah, which is remarkable, and so more people are finding jobs in Utah, and then no longer needing food stamps because they’re able to pay their bills,” Dunn says.

But when Gina Cornia, Executive Director of Utahns Against Hunger looks at the same graph, she sees a correlation with work requirements. As of fall 2012, able-bodied adults without dependents were restricted to three months of benefits. After that, they had to meet certain employment requirements in order to continue on SNAP.

“We know that that’s when the caseloads started to go down,” Cornia says. “A bunch of them probably aren’t on food stamps because of earned income, but there’s a good chunk of people  who lost it because they were not engaged in worksite placement.”

Now the state is considering further restrictions. Until now, there has been an option for people to fulfill their work requirements by volunteering 24 hours a month at certified worksites, like a food pantry. Dunn says that program has had very small participation and a poor success rate at transitioning people into employment. He says the department would like to use those resources to focus on other work programs like resume and job search tools.

Cornia says it’s a good thing if people are able to get placed in a job or training, but she’s concerned that many people in this population have barriers to overcome.

“Maybe somebody needs a pair of glasses, maybe somebody needs to have their wisdom teeth pulled. There are a lot of health issues and social issues that folks just needs some help getting over,” Cornia says. “Is DWS willing to step up to the plate and provide those services to make sure that people are getting appropriate services before they cut them off from receiving benefits?”

Dunn says DWS is listening to input from advocacy groups, and hopes to implement the change this fall.

Andrea Smardon is new at KUER, but she has worked in public broadcasting for more than a decade. Most recently, she worked as a reporter and news announcer for WGBH radio. While in Boston, she produced stories for Morning Edition, Marketplace Money, and The World. Her print work was published in The Boston Globe and Prior to that, she worked at Seattleââ
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