Since the recession in 2008, a waiver offered to North Carolina by the federal government exempted able-bodied, childless food assistance recipients from meeting a 20-hour per-week work requirement to receive benefits.
When N.C. House Bill 318 passed last October, that waiver expired in 23 counties whose unemployment rates disqualified them from the exemption. Orange County is one of these 23 counties with the new work requirement.
The 77 North Carolina counties still without the work requirement are primarily rural ones, which have been deemed to have insufficient job opportunities. But the legislature permanently banned state waivers effective July 2016, and the other 77 counties will be subject to the work requirement beginning July 1.
In more urban areas of the state, including Orange County, the law went into effect Jan. 1.
The policy affects an estimated 1,500 Orange County able-bodied adults with no dependents who must complete 20 hours of work a week or risk losing their benefits after three months.
Many worry the law is counterproductive and makes recipients less likely to find jobs, rather than more motivated.
“Making somebody hungry is not a great motivator for successfully getting a job,” Michael Reinke, executive director of the Inter-Faith Council for Social Service, said. “If what you want to do is help people get jobs and become self-sufficient, then you want to make sure their basic needs are met.”
Some are concerned there might not be enough work opportunities to provide jobs to every resident who needs to meet the requirement.
Reinke said transportation and shift times are obstacles that could prevent someone from taking a job.
Gene Nichol, UNC professor of law and member of the N.C. Poverty Research Fund, said the policy change reflects poorly on the state legislature.
“It is astonishing to me that a state with one of the very highest rates of hunger and food insecurity in the nation would move to kick people off of food stamps,” Nichol said. “But this is one more step in the North Carolina legislature’s shameful war on poor people.”
A state representative for Durham and Orange counties, Graig Meyer, who voted against the bill, said representatives who voted in favor of the bill aimed to reduce government spending on entitlement programs.
“But to me, it is a very mean-spirited attack on unemployed people,” Meyer said.