John Bel Edwards is the leader Louisiana needs right now

If you’ve been following the news lately, you’re likely aware that starting January 1, 2016, some 31,000 Louisiana residents will be kicked out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. In the weeks since the announcement from the Department of Children and Family Services, the move by the Jindal administration to trim the program has been decried by Governor-elect John Bel Edwards, protested by workers’ justice organizations, and even blasted by moderate to conservative- leaning editorial boards. It is unconscionable that Gov. Jindal would use his final days in office to make life more difficult for poor people, but not surprising given the contempt he has shown towards the poor throughout his eight years in office. 

The federal government offers states with high unemployment rates a waiver of the federal work requirement for able bodied adults without dependents. Louisiana has qualified and applied for this waiver for the past 19 years due to our high unemployment rate. Our current waiver, which allows some 31,000 individuals to access SNAP food assistance, will expire today. Instead of renewing the waiver and food assistance for folks looking for work, the Jindal administration declined to re-apply for the waiver. 

This decision reimposes the three-month time limit for all unemployed, able-bodied people with no dependents, meaning that those individuals who have been unemployed and job searching for a period greater than three months will be kicked out of the SNAP program between January 1 and when Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards reverses Gov. Jindal’s decision after he takes office on January 11. At that time, the chronically underfunded and under-staffed Department of Children and Family Services will have to begin the treacherous work of re-enrolling those tens of thousands of Louisianians in SNAP. It’s unfortunate that so much of the department’s resources will have to go toward this effort, and it will also heavily burden the enrollees, who will have to reapply, starting the entire application process over. 

Louisiana needs this waiver. In recent years, Louisianians have been much more likely to experience food insecurity and/or hunger than residents of most other US states, with 16.5 percent of households going without enough food in the years 2011-2013. Nationally, this puts us in 43rd place. In contrast, Louisianians faired better than residents of most other US states on average from 2008-2010, when only 12.6 percent of households experienced food insecurity and our state ranked 15th in the nation. The difference may not seem like much, but it amounts to as many as 185,523 people newly experiencing hunger due to a lack of money or resources. 

Meanwhile, Louisiana’s unemployment rate of 6.3 percent is much higher than the national average, falling behind only four states and Washington, DC as of November 2015. As was pointed out by Think Progress, among others, sixteen Louisiana parishes, as well as the city of Monroe, have been designated “Labor Surplus Areas” through the end of 2016. A “Labor Surplus Area” is one in which job searchers outnumber available jobs, resulting in high unemployment and underemployment.This directly counters the false narrative spun by Governor Jindal assuring all of us that his administration has created tens of thousands of jobs and ensured opportunity for everyday Louisianians over the eight years of his two terms. In our state, this is compounded by the decline in the price of oil, which will likely continue to be disastrous for our economy.

It is not as though our hands are tied, however. Unemployment poses a real challenge to Louisiana’s incoming administration, but not an insurmountable one. An area in which the incoming administration could make a real difference combating unemployment and underemployment would be much needed area job placement and training programs that would help to put people back to work so they would no longer need SNAP. Until these programs are improved, however, we cannot just allow people to go hungry.

SNAP, unlike almost all other social safety net programs, gives no credit towards the requirement to job-searching. So unemployed and underemployed Louisianians who diligently apply for jobs but are unsuccessful in securing one during their three month SNAP allowance are completely out of luck, at least until this waiver decision has been reversed. Obviously, taking away their ability to purchase food does nothing to change Louisiana’s current unemployment situation. The decision will only further burden some of the poorest people in our state. Data from the federal Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that on average, this group has a monthly income of approximately 19 percent of the poverty line —about $2,200 per year for a household of one in 2014 — and in most cases does not qualify for any other social safety net program. This makes this particular subset of SNAP users much poorer than the average SNAP user, whose household incomes is at 58.5 percent of the poverty line. 

We commend Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards for his advocacy on behalf of those set to lose their SNAP assistance and for his promise to reinstate the waiver. For those living in poverty and for those who are struggling with hunger, John Bel Edwards is the leader Louisiana needs right now. It is long past time for a leader who shows compassion for those in need, a leader who will end the years of neglect and contempt towards the poor. And maybe, just maybe, we can start on a true path of ending the legacy of poverty in our state.