What Happened to the Concept of Work?
Earlier this month, the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services (DCFS), the state agency in charge of administering food stamps (SNAP) and cash assistance (TANF), issued a press release announcing the end of the temporary pandemic-era increases in those benefits. Three years after the federal government increased benefits to help families out of work due to government-enforced shutdowns, it has finally declared an end. During the pandemic, DCFS broadened eligibility for SNAP and TANF by disregarding certain resources that applicants have, such as bank accounts and stocks, from consideration. The agency also increased the income threshold from 130% to 200% of the Federal Poverty Level. These relaxed rules, which led more people to qualify and receive more in benefits, were on top of increases provided in the base allotments due to inflation.
With the extra assistance coming to an end, DCFS is “encouraging SNAP households to report any changes in their household size, income and/or expenses, as certain changes could result in an increase to their regular benefit amount.” The release seems entirely focused on how recipients can maximize their monetary assistance, but nowhere is there a reference to how recipients can find work, pursue job training or education, or connect with job counseling services. There is no mention of the services provided by the Louisiana Workforce Commission or local workforce boards, which are charged with assisting people in the safety net with finding work. In a time when unemployment rates are near all-time lows, and companies are competing for employees, many work opportunities exist, but they have to be prioritized.
Giving greater visibility into DCFS priorities and work-based outcomes, an audit of the agency and its handling of the SNAP program was just released. It found that the department’s error rate for processing SNAP applications has jumped dramatically in recent years, particularly for accounts that were denied, suspended, or terminated. The auditor also found that most SNAP cases that were closed by DCFS between 2018 and 2022 were for non-financial or procedural reasons, meaning that large numbers of cases were not closed because people achieved self-sufficiency. Between 2018 and 2022, 81% of the nearly 1.5 million total accounts were closed by staff for non-financial reasons, and between 2019 and 2020, 59% of closed accounts were reopened within 90 days. DCFS also experienced an increase in SNAP qualification errors, which rose from 4.4% in 2018 to nearly 45% in 2022.
Prior to the pandemic and the increased allotments for SNAP and TANF funds, 770,000 Louisianans participated in at least one program. However, because of the pandemic, that number jumped to 982,000 in January of 2021, accounting for one-fifth of the state’s population, and is now slowly decreasing, down to 902,000 in November of 2022. The maximum monthly benefit in 2022 was $281 for a single person, including the $95 COVID “plus-up.” According to the audit, SNAP benefit payments in Louisiana total $2.46 billion in 2022, with an average payment of $509 per month.
Louisiana is a state that relies heavily on federal safety-net assistance, with nearly one-quarter of the state’s population on at least one program. We should connect these benefits with work, which will lessen the generational dependency on government and help people find hope and self-sufficiency in order to flourish.