The new governor’s philosophy about at least one social safety-net program became clear in February, as he turned down federal food-stamp money to feed Louisiana school kids during summer break — a time when many are away from reliable meals in school cafeterias. (Photo courtesy of Second Harvest Food Bank)

For decades, the federal government has required most able-bodied food-stamp recipients without dependents to work. And for decades, Louisiana has routinely asked the feds to waive those requirements, in areas where unemployment is high and jobs are scarce.

The feds granted those requests. The resulting waivers allowed Louisiana to issue benefits to thousands of people who might not otherwise qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps.)

Now, proposed legislation would bar the state Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), which administers SNAP using federal dollars, from requesting those waivers.

Louisiana receives perennially low rankings, as one of the nation’s most impoverished and most food-insecure states. But some advocates who work with low-income people see the elimination of waivers as part of a broader agenda by Gov. Jeff Landry and the Republican statehouse to chip away at social-safety-net benefits in Louisiana. 

That inkling appears to have some merit. 

Other bills filed in this year’s legislative sessions aim to put stricter limits on who can receive benefits and what they can do with them. Senate Bill 196 would “protect public benefits for those who are truly needy” by requiring DCFS to oversee more frequent reporting by food-stamp recipients for changes in income and household composition that could result in benefits being lost. House Bill 481 mandates drug testing for a portion of the relatively tiny number of people who receive direct cash benefits through the Families In Need Of Temporary Assistance (FITAP) program.  House Bill 260 would have prevented people from using SNAP benefits for “unhealthy snack foods,” but was pulled from consideration when the bill’s author, Rep. Troy Romero (R- Jennings) learned that the state would first need a waiver from the USDA to implement those restrictions. Romero said he would introduce resolutions addressing the issue instead.

Landry hasn’t taken a public position on any of the bills. 

But the new governor’s philosophy about at least one social safety-net program became clear in February, as he turned down federal food-stamp money to feed Louisiana school kids during summer break — a time when many are away from reliable meals in school cafeterias. 

Shortly after Landry took office, his DCFS director, David Matlock, announced that the state would not accept an additional $71 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) for Summer EBT, which provides additional food money during summer months for low-income families with school-age kids.

In Louisiana, the summer program would have provided additional support for more than half a million children. Any family with a child in a free or reduced-lunch program would have received $40 per qualifying child per summer month on an electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, card. 

In a statement, Matlock called summer EBT an example of “piecemeal programs that come with more strings than long-term solutions,” without elaborating what the strings might be. (Later, Matlock told a legislative committee that the program’s estimated $3.6 million administrative costs were too much for his agency.)

To some advocates, the flurry of pending legislation to restrict benefits feels mean-spirited.

“These bills are punitive,” said Christina LeBlanc of Invest in Louisiana. “They weaken our state social-safety net, which needs to be strengthened. They just put a lot of burdens on Louisiana families that are completely unnecessary. And they are all costly.”

In an interview shortly after this story was originally published, Sen. Blake Miguez (R- New Iberia), who is sponsoring the bill that would ban waivers, said that there does be a shift in philosophy under Landry with regards to social safety net programs.

He said he thought the administration under former Governor John Bel Edwards judged the success of the food stamp program based on how many people were on it. Under Landry, Miguez said he sensed a different approach.

“I think the new administration —  it seems like they’re taking a steer into the direction of ‘How can we empower people to get back to work?’”

Do work requirements increase employment?

Food pantries serve people that do not receive SNAP benefits, but just need an extra bag of groceries. Pantries also see many households whose SNAP benefits did not stretch to the end of the month. In Louisiana, an individual can receive up to $291 a month in food assistance, while a family of three receives up to $766. The average SNAP household has two recipients and receives around $370 in benefits a month. (Photo courtesy of Second Harvest Food Bank.)

As President Bill Clinton signed his signature welfare-reform bill in 1996, he launched federal work requirements for SNAP benefits. Since then, the USDA has mandated that most able-bodied adults without dependents can only receive three months of benefits in a three-year period, unless they work or volunteer for at least 80 hours a month. 

Last summer, Congress increased the age range for “able-bodied people,” moving from 18-49 to 18-54 years old, and created new categories of people exempted from the work requirements, including homeless people, veterans, and teens aging out of foster care.

In Louisiana, more than 800,000 people receive SNAP benefits. Under former Gov. John Bel Edwards, the state began utilizing what is known as “broad-based categorical eligibility” for SNAP recipients. That raises maximum gross-income limits from 130 percent to 200 percent of the federal poverty line, while ensuring that household net incomes after allowable deductions — for things like shelter, childcare, and medical expenses — still fall below the federal poverty line. For a family of three, the poverty line is $24,860 a year, or $2,072 a month.

SNAP benefits depend on household income and size. After qualifying, an individual can receive up to $291 a month in food assistance, while a family of three receives up to $766. The average SNAP household has two recipients and receives around $370 in benefits a month.

Federal guidelines allow individuals to meet work requirements by participating in a qualifying work-training program. But states are not required to guarantee individuals a slot in those programs. 

That’s where waivers come in. States with pockets of high joblessness can apply for a federal waiver of work requirements for those parishes where job supply is insufficient, unemployment is more than over 10%, or average unemployment is more than 20% above the national average.

Nearly every year since waivers were implemented, DCFS, with the signature of the state’s governor, has submitted waiver applications for Louisiana. Some years DCFS has requested, and received, work requirements for the entire state. Other years, the request is more targeted. 

During the federal public-health emergency declared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, work requirements were suspended altogether. But that emergency expired on May 11, 2023. 

For this fiscal year, which started October 1, 33 parishes — including Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard — are waived from the requirement’s three-month time limit, impacting nearly 20 thousand individuals. 

Senate Bill 195 introduced by Miguez would, among other things. prohibit DCFS from applying for waivers at all. 

‘Welfare may provide temporary relief, but work provides lasting value’

Because Louisiana has such a high rate of food insecurity, solutions must go far beyond food stamps in Louisiana. Food pantries often work with local farmers to buy produce that has slight blemishes or is too small for the commercial market. (Photo courtesy of Second Harvest Food Bank.)

At a Senate Health and Welfare committee hearing late last month, Miguez presented his bill alongside Scott Centorino, who previously worked as an assistant attorney general under Landry and is now deputy policy director at a national, Florida-based think tank called Foundation for Government Accountability, or FGA.

FGA published a report in December emphasizing that “States abuse loopholes to expand food-stamp eligibility.” About a month ago, FGA also published a Summer EBT report that concluded that “states should refuse the scam of near-universal, taxpayer-funded school meals and focus on the truly needy.”

Miguez described his waiver bill as a “pro-work bill at a time when work is falling out of favor.”

“Welfare may provide temporary relief, but work provides lasting value we can give back to our families, our community, and God,” he said. “This bill is designed to help able-bodied adults on welfare get back to work, become self-sufficient, and ensuring benefits are going to people in Louisiana who truly need them the most.”

Miguez pointed to Florida as an example of the benefits his bill might have, claiming that more than 90% of unemployed able-bodied adults went back to work after that state declined to apply for work-requirement waivers. 

He was presumably referring to a report done by the Foundation for Government Accountability, which found that there was a 94% decrease in the number of able-bodied adults without dependents receiving benefits after the January 1, 2016 change in state policy. 

But the study does not differentiate between people who no longer received food stamps because of good-paying jobs and people who were simply removed from the program because they didn’t find work.

A separate report from the Florida Policy Center questioned the FGA report’s conclusions, describing the report as “devoid of any information” regarding the health and well-being or actual wages of individuals who were moved off SNAP. 

“While it’s true that SNAP work requirements have cycled hundreds of thousands of Floridians off SNAP, it is not true — nor does the report show — that those Floridians left SNAP because work requirements galvanized them to find jobs,” the report reads. “In truth, the precipitous decline in SNAP enrollment occurred because Floridians were deemed non-compliant with work requirements, and they were subsequently kicked off food assistance. This is despite the fact that many have part-time jobs, are temporarily unemployed, or face significant barriers to work.”

Other studies came to similar conclusions: while able-bodied work requirements do decrease participation in SNAP, they do not increase employment. 

Proponents of the federal waivers argue that the three-month time limit for work requirements is overly restrictive, especially in areas with high joblessness. They say that a work requirement does not increase employment — only deny benefits for people who are struggling to find employment. 

“It doesn’t encourage people to get work. It doesn’t help them find jobs. It doesn’t do much of anything except to take away their food assistance, which makes them poor, which makes them more likely to have to scramble,” said Ed Bolen of the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute. 

When families lose food assistance, their household still needs to eat, Bolen said. So they spend time waiting in line at food pantries; they ask for help from friends or relatives, or they make tough decisions to pay for car repairs instead of food, because they also still need to get to work, to jobs where hours don’t reliably total 80 hours by month’s end. “It just puts them in a more precarious position over time,” he said.

The provision requiring a person to work 20 hours per week also doesn’t make sense, Bolen said, considering that many people with precarious incomes often don’t have regular working hours, instead depending on gig work, or service-industry jobs where shifts fluctuate from week to week. 

In addition, SNAP administrators may not have sufficient information to determine who might be able-bodied, he said.  More than anything, he said, the idea that people are simply relying on food stamps rather than working is a myth. One hour of minimum wage work, he noted, is nearly equal to the maximum daily SNAP benefits for an individual.

Also, few food-stamp households are made up of only able-bodied recipients. Nationally, 86 percent of SNAP benefits go to households that include a child, elderly person, or person with disabilities, according to USDA data

But Miguez said there were 120,000 job openings in Louisiana, and people needed to start filling them in order to boost the economy.

“If you can fill those jobs, then you can really get the economy going,” he told The Lens. “You can, really, not only help people with gainful employment, able to help their families and make a better life for themselves, but it helps the state as a whole.”

He also said that people can apply for a good cause waiver with DCFS for work requirements  if they have a reason why they can’t work. The USDA says good cause waivers include things like illness, household emergencies, lack of transportation, or “other circumstances beyond the person’s control.”

‘Fear is not how I want to govern’

As the state of Louisiana prepares to ramp up work requirements for food-stamp households, advocates note that few food-stamp households are made up of only able-bodied recipients. Nationally, 86 percent of SNAP benefits go to households that include a child, elderly person, or person with disabilities, according to USDA data. In Louisiana, nearly half of recipients are children. (Photo courtesy of Second Harvest Food Bank)

When Miguez’s bill was introduced, dozens of opponents gathered in the Senate committee room, many dressed in orange for Feeding Louisiana, an association of Louisiana food banks. 

The state should be looking for ways to improve people’s job prospects rather than removing benefits for people who can’t find work, Pat R. Van Burkleo, executive director of Feeding Louisiana, said.

“It’s about taking something away, not adding something to our communities,” Van Burkleo told the committee about the proposed legislation.

In testimony addressing the bill’s additional stipulations, DCFS Secretary Matlock cautioned against adding to the DCFS workload by assigning more frequent qualification checks of recipients to his office, which is already stretched thin, he said.

While Matlock did not take a position on the overall bill, he expressed some concern about the impact of ending waivers altogether.

“All of those waivers will go away if something is not done” by the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30, Matlock said. “Depending on the unemployment issues, that can be an issue. There are unemployment challenges that exist in our rural areas that don’t exist in our other areas.”

Matlock said the new administration hadn’t yet decided whether the department would again request waivers. 

“This place was packed this morning because people did not know what was going to happen,” said Sen. Gerald Boudreaux (D-Lafayette). “Fear is not how I want to govern. I do not want people to think the boogeyman is coming to take away your SNAP benefits.”

Before implementing work requirements, DCFS should expand job-training programs for anyone who needs them, said Boudreaux, a proponent of work requirements for able-bodied individuals.

(An earlier version of Miguez’s bill would have required DCFS to develop an employment training plan for “every eligible individual,” but that provision was removed after DCFS leaders assured the committee that they were already working to establish a more robust work program.)

Boudreaux ultimately did not object to Miguez’s bill, nor did any of his colleagues,despite the concerns of its citizen opponents. lt is now scheduled to be taken up by the full Senate on April 15. 

This story was updated after publication to include comments from Sen. Blake Miguez.

Nick Chrastil

Nicholas Chrastil covers criminal justice for The Lens. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in Slate, Undark, Mother Jones, and the Atavist, among other outlets. Chrastil has a master's degree in mass...