By CHRIS BLANK
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A proposal to tighten food stamps eligibility for those who fail to meet work requirements is being withdrawn, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon said Thursday.
The Democratic governor said he directed the state Department of Social Services to back off from changes to a state waiver that since 2009 has allowed able-bodied adults without children to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program even if they fail to meet certain federal work requirements. Nixon said there now is more certainty about the federal funding level for food stamps after last week's federal budget agreement.
"Ensuring state-administered food assistance programs operate as effectively and efficiently as possible is an important priority of my administration," Nixon said. He told reporters Wednesday evening that the issue is a legitimate area for public discourse and that he would continue to assess where to go forward.
Missouri first qualified for the exemption in 2009 when the state's unemployment rate was higher during the economic downturn. The federal government pays the cost for the benefits while the state administers the program.
The Department of Social Services proposed changing eligibility rules to waive the work requirement only in counties where the unemployment rate is higher than 10 percent. Elsewhere, adults who currently receive food stamps would have had three months to find a job working at least 20 hours per week or enroll in a federally approved job training program. Adults who lose a job would have been eligible for benefits for three months out of every three years.
In August, the unemployment rate was 10 percent or higher in four places: Caldwell, Hickory, Reynolds and Shannon counties. About 915,000 people received food stamps in August, which is down from the high mark of nearly 962,000 in December 2011. About 724,000 were enrolled in August 2008. Officials have estimated Missouri has about 58,000 able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 50 without dependents who receive federal food stamp benefits.
State Rep. Gail McCann Beatty, a Democrat from Kansas City and the assistant House minority leader, said thousands of Missourians still are struggling. She said Nixon did the right thing Thursday, calling the food stamps proposal "the wrong move at the wrong time."
Several organizations also opposed the food stamps proposal. Jeanette Mott Oxford, the executive director of the Missouri Association of Social Welfare, said increased hunger puts additional strain on already overburdened food pantries and charities while people who are hungry tend to get sick. She said there had been efforts to push back against the proposal and that she is delighted by Nixon's decision.
"I am so happy. I am grinning from ear to ear here," she said.