The clock is ticking. In three months, the most-employable recipients of food stamps will lose their benefits if they fail to comply with the new welfare law.
Under the rules, able-bodied, childless adults between the ages of 18 and 50 must be working at least 20 hours a week or participating in job training by Feb. 22, 1997, to keep their food stamps.
Hunger advocates around the country say the time frame is too short, and they're angling to have their states' governors apply for waivers. The law allows for such exemptions in areas with unemployment over 10 percent or where jobs are scarce. But guidelines for waivers are vague, and many states are waiting for the US Department of Agriculture to issue formal guidance.
So far, five states have applied for at least partial waivers - New Jersey, West Virginia, Virginia, Illinois, and Louisiana (the only one approved so far) - and others are considering it. But in some states, governors are playing their cards close to the vest while state legislators and advocacy groups try to be heard.
"Let me be clear. The philosophical underpinnings ... that [able-bodied] people between 18 and 50 ... should be working - people don't disagree with that," says Robert Fersh, president of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, a national hunger advocacy group. "But this is a sledgehammer, designed by people who were not even on the [congressional] agriculture committees, offered at the last minute, no hearings, no discussion, no implementation considerations. It's just an attempt to save money."
The Congressional Budget Office anticipates that up to 1 million food stamp recipients will be subject to the cutoff in any given month, depending on how many waivers the Agriculture Department grants.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal policy group here, says three months is not enough time for many of the recipients to find work and that there aren't enough workfare or job training slots available to all who want them. The center reports that many recipients in this category have "a strong attachment to the work force," with few remaining on food stamps continually, but that most take more than three months to find a job. Some have limited skills, drug or alcohol problems, and health problems that hinder employment but aren't severe enough to qualify for disability programs.
Rep. Bob Ney (R) of Ohio, one of the authors of the provision, argues that the rule is reasonable and contains sufficient loopholes for recipients who live where jobs are scarce.
"These are the most employable people receiving food stamps," Congressman Ney says. "They are able-bodied, they're 18 to 50, they're childless. The bottom line is there are people ... who are very able to save for their children's future, and they're out there working and they're paying for people who are getting food stamps and doing nothing."
In the case of states that don't have enough workfare or job training slots available to all who want them, Ney says "this will force the states to accept some responsibility."
Only 10 states run programs that specifically require food stamp recipients to work for benefits. And with states facing the prospect of helping harder-to-place welfare recipients - such as those with small children - find work, advocates worry that the childless, able-bodied food-stamp recipients will be last to get help.
Supporters of the cutoff say the states do have an incentive to help those who face losing their food stamps. "At the local level, everyone's going to have to interact with these people," says an aide to a congressman who supports the cutoff. "We won't just say go away."
But officials at soup kitchens aren't so sure, and they anticipate a boom in demand at a time when donations are declining. "We're working hard to get new resources, but we do expect demand to escalate," says Christine Vladimiroff, president of Second Harvest, a national food bank organization in Chicago.
On Capitol Hill, legislators concerned with hunger are taking a wait-and-see approach. The action, say aides, is in the states.
In Ohio, State Senate Democratic Leader Ben Espy wrote a letter recently to Gov. George Voinovich (R) urging him to apply for a waiver for areas with high unemployment and scarce jobs. State hunger groups, are trying to "educate" the public and politicians about the potential effects of the food stamps cutoff.
In California, hunger activists are quietly working to persuade Gov. Pete Wilson (R) to apply for a waiver for poor areas. "He doesn't like to be mow-mowed by people waving signs and flags," says Laurie True of California Food Policy Advocates in San Francisco. "So we've been taking a more behind-the-scenes approach, talking to staff and presenting them with the information."