Thousands of Single Mississippians off Food Stamp Rolls
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Thousands of single adults in Mississippi without children are off the state's food stamp rolls, now that a mandatory education and training program is in effect. MPB's Desare Frazier reports. 

Sharon is 45, single, with no children. She asked us not to use her last name because she's a homeless Iraq War Veteran.  Sharon's staying in a Jackson shelter after losing her home in Walnut Grove, while in the hospital with severe anemia. She receives $194 in food stamps per month, which is the average benefit. Sharon says it's a lifeline for her.

"Basically it means survival and having had anemia that's iron-based. It was being able to eat the proper foods," said Sharon

The Mississippi Department of Human Services reports in March, nearly 35,000 single Mississippians without children received food stamps through the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. The law allows those between the ages of 18 and 49 to receive benefits for three months during a three year period. But states with high unemployment and poverty rates like Mississippi can obtain a waiver that will allow people to receive food stamps year round. According to MDHS, the state has received a waiver since 2006, but this year Governor Phil Bryant didn't apply for an extension.

"We want people to go to work. We want to give them an opportunity to get into a workforce training program. The requirements say you get into a workforce training program, some type of education program or you can even do community service, to give something back," said Bryant.

Federal law says Sharon has given back through her military service. Homeless veterans are exempt from losing food stamp benefits. But without the federal waiver, according to the Mississippi Department of Human Services, more than 11,000 Mississippians no longer qualify for assistance as of March 30. The guidelines require that single childless adults who work less than 20 hours per week, must be in an education and job training program or do community service as the governor  mentioned. The governor also adds recipients receive a weekly $50 stipend to help pay for transportation. Dana Kidd is the Director of State Operations for MDHS and says there are some other exemptions. 

"Pregnant women would be considered exempt. Individuals that we've determined to be mentally or physically incapacitated. Individuals who are employed as least 30 hours per week," said Kidd.

Kidd says, her office has worked overtime contacting single, childless food stamp recipients they call able-bodied adults without dependents. She says they've been working to place them in jobs or training programs. Still Kidd says it's a challenge.  In areas where jobs and training activities are limited, MDHS has the authority to make exemptions on a case by case basis--like in the Delta.

"We've identified some areas that unemployment is significant in those areas. So, we've also set up exemptions in those areas where people have done everything they can do to find a job," said Kidd.

So far, Kidd says even though 11,000 Mississippians are off the rolls, their cases remain open. Azeline Gillespie of Jackson, struggles to make ends meet. Her two-year old grandson lives with her and she receives $42 in food stamps per month. She says it helps--some. Still Gillespie agrees with the governor's decision to not seek an extension. 

"A lot of people just doing this just to get government benefits and I think it's the right thing to do. If you're able to get a job if you're able to work and you don't have any medical issues or anything like that, I feel like you know it's the right thing," said Gillespie.

"If you don't have any money $190 can be a lot of money," said Beady.

Charles Beady is the CEO of the Mississippi Food Network. They distribute goods to 430 agencies, including churches, food pantries and feeding programs. Beady says out of a population of almost 3 million people in Mississippi, 600,000 are hungry or don't know where their next meal is coming from.
 
"Mississippi is the hungriest state in the nation statistically speaking. So, any time you're talking about adding to those numbers and percentages that just means that demand is probably going to increase," said Beady.

Beady says it's too soon to tell how much of an impact taking thousands of people off food stamps will have on pantries throughout the state. Governor Phil Bryant signed a bill this legislative session providing $50 million dollars for workforce development training. In the meantime, Sharon, a homeless war veteran, recently attended a job fair and says she's hoping she'll get a call from a perspective employer.