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Lawmakers Consider Increased Penalties For Some Food Stamp Recipients

A sign indicates food stamps are accepted.
Paul Sableman
Creative Commons

The North Carolina House is considering a bill that would increase disqualification periods for food stamp recipients who don't meet their work requirements. Able-bodied adults without children have to work or train for 20 hours a week in order to qualify for food stamps.

The bill would disqualify people from receiving food stamps for three months for one instance of noncompliance with the work requirements, six months for the second instance and would permanently disqualify recipients for three instances of noncompliance. These proposed penalties are more severe than the federal penalties.

"Food and nutrition benefits are supported by a limited amount of resources," said Rep. Bert Jones (R-Rockingham) who is sponsoring the bill, along with Rep. Mike Hager (R-Rutherford) and Rep. Hugh Blackwell (R-Burke). "Most people see the need to eliminate any identifiable measures of fraud or abuse of the system because it takes away the resources from those that need it the most."

The work requirements are federal law, but the federal government suspended them in 2008 in light of the recession. They were reinstituted again on Jan. 1 in 23 of North Carolina's counties, including Wake and Durham. Federal law would have allowed the suspension to remain in effect for the state's remaining 77 counties, but state lawmakers voted in September 2015 to make work requirements mandatory in those counties too, beginning in July.

Rep. Joe Queen (D-Haywood) introduced an amendment to suspend the work requirements in those counties, but it was voted down.

The measure would also require the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate welfare recipients who don't report lottery winnings of $2,250 or more.

"If a person wins the lottery over a certain amount, then this is a change of resources, and the law requires that people would report this, but people don't always do that," Jones said. He pointed to investigations in Michigan and Maine that found lottery winners were receiving welfare. In Michigan, a few food stamp recipients had won amounts greater than $100,000, but most had won less than $5,000. 

Under the measure, each month DHHS Division of Social Services would cross-check welfare recipients with the names of lottery winners provided by the North Carolina Lottery Commission. If the department found a recipient did not report winnings of more than $2,250, the department would have to further investigate the recipient for fraud or misrepresentation.

The bill sparked criticism on the floor from House Democrats, including Rep. Nathan Baskerville (D-Vance).

"Somebody that's just playing the lottery, won $2,250 to put some food on the table--they might mess around and end up going to prison behind this bill," he warned.

Rep. Garland Pierce (D-Scotland) also expressed misgivings.

"We've created this monster, we've given people false hopes that if you win you get out of poverty and all that," Pierce said, "but at the same time we want to come back around and penalize them for whatever winnings they get."

Areport from the left-leaning NC Policy Watch found that most lottery consumers live in the state's poorest counties.

After mounting opposition,  Jones withdrew the the bill from Tuesday's calendar and added it to the calendar for a vote Wednesday.

Jess is WUNC's Fletcher Fellow for Education Policy Reporting. Her reporting focuses on how decisions made at the North Carolina General Assembly affect the state's students, families, teachers and communities.
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