Chapel Hill News

DSS officials worry many Orange County residents could go hungry next year

Nancy Coston
Nancy Coston

Nearly 1,500 childless Orange County residents could lose their food stamps April 1 if the county can’t help them meet federal aid requirements, officials say.

The federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program limits unemployed adults who don’t have a disability or children to three months of food assistance every 36 months. Single, childless adults without a job can qualify for SNAP benefits of up to $194 a month.

Those rules affect adults from 18 to 49 years old, but were suspended by the federal government during the 2008 recession because of high unemployment. While the rules have been restored, states with a high number of jobless adults can still waive the work requirement.

But the waiver will end Jan. 1, 2016, for North Carolina workers, because of a bill that Gov. Pat McCrory signed earlier this year, known as the Protect North Carolina Workers Act. The bill’s supporters said it would encourage people to get back to work. Critics warn once recipients’ three months are up, it could leave thousands of single adults jobless and hungry, including many who are veterans, homeless, or in the process of seeking work or disability benefits.

Only two North Carolina counties reported double-digit unemployment in October: Graham and Scotland. Another 81 counties had an unemployment rate of 5 percent or higher. Orange County’s unemployment rate was 4.2 percent.

The three-month limit will start Jan. 1 in 23 counties where jobs are growing, said Nancy Coston, director of the Orange County Department of Social Services. Recipients in the remaining 77 counties, where jobs are still hard to find, will lose their waivers in July.

The state notified people who might be affected in early November, said Lindsey Shewmaker, Orange County DSS human services manager.

Roughly 6,100 people receive food assistance in Orange County, she said. Most have children in the home, a disability or some other exemption, she said, but a state report has identified 860 additional clients who appear to be able to work but haven’t reported any wages. County officials think there are several hundred more the state isn’t counting, including a number of residents who have disabilities but have not qualified yet for Social Security or disability.

The critical step now is figuring out who needs help, Coston said. Those who work, volunteer or attend a job training program at least 20 hours a week will be able to keep their benefits but may need help documenting those hours, they said.

Others may be in a more difficult situation.

“There’s going to be a group, I do believe, who are homeless, but there’s also going to be a large group who have housing – it may not be adequate housing, but they are housed but they have transportation barriers,” Coston said. “There’s going to be another group that their criminal record is a barrier.”

County-sponsored job fairs and seasonal employment opportunities may be the best solution, she recently told the Orange County Board of Commissioners. They have stepped up employment and training in the last two years and are working now with Durham Tech officials, she said.

They’ve also encouraged private employers to help by setting up on-the-job experiences, apprenticeships and other training programs, Coston said. DSS also hopes to give people temporary jobs helping reach everyone who might be affected and getting them to help, she said.

The county also has some tuition assistance available for residents to attend Durham Tech. The county’s voluntary employment and training program is small, however, and may need to be expanded, she said.

Commissioner Mark Dorosin suggested the county or its residents – through the Community Giving Fund – may be able buy up to six months’ worth of food for some clients. The county also could recruit social agencies, Commissioner Barry Jacobs said, to help raise money or find jobs.

“I think this a community where people would be willing to say I’d give $180 a month to help a family or to help a person be able to eat,” Dorosin said. “It would be shameful if we weren’t able to do that.”

County Manager Bonnie Hammersley said staff will continue to monitor the situation.

“Even if by some miracle, everyone is taken care of, we will come back and report that to you,” Hammersley said. “In reality, we really believe at some point we’re going to be coming back and asking you all to approve some kind of supplemental payment for those who don’t meet that need.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Learn more

More information about the changes to federal food and nutrition services and how to apply for help is available from the Orange County Department of Social Services at 919-245-2800 or Businesses and groups with volunteer, training and job opportunities also are asked to contact DSS officials.