About 300,000 Floridians who qualified for food stamps now face a work requirement that went into effect Jan. 1 -- and the possibility of at least temporarily losing benefits if they don't meet the guidelines.
As of the first of the year, able-bodied, childless adults ages 18 to 49 were required to work, get job training or volunteer 20 hours a week to receive food stamps through what is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Otherwise, they're limited to three months of food assistance in each 36-month period.
Similar requirements also took effect in 21 other states. Gov. Rick Scott's administration pointed to job opportunities in the state, but Sen. Bill Montford, a Tallahassee Democrat who represents a massive swath of rural communities, said food-stamp beneficiaries can't find work in some areas.
"Especially in North Florida, in these rural counties that I represent, they have not felt this economic revival that people talk about," Montford said. "Unemployment is still high. The jobs are not there. … The needs the SNAP program meets, I would say the needs in these rural counties are just as great as they were in 2009."
The work requirement dates back to a 1996 welfare overhaul, but the federal government waived it in 2009 during the economic recession. Now, after unemployment rates have dropped, states are resuming the use of the work requirement.
The left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said 21 Florida counties have jobless rates high enough and sustained enough to qualify for an exemption from the work mandate from the federal government.
"A few Southeastern states are electing to re-implement the time limit statewide even though some or all of the state qualifies for a waiver," the center reported last month, noting that 500,000 to 1 million people will lose their food stamps in 2016. "Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and North Carolina will be particularly hard hit."
Scott's administration sees a brighter picture because of the economy, and people will be able to continue receiving food stamps if they meet the work requirements.
Department of Children and Families spokeswoman Michelle Glady said in an email that the state's unemployment rate is at an eight-year low of 4.9 percent.
"No Floridian currently receiving benefits will lose their eligibility," Glady said. "However, they must meet minimum federal requirements for work, volunteering or active job search activities."
Department of Economic Opportunity spokeswoman Morgan McCord echoed Glady and also said the state is trying to help people meet the requirements.
"In every county around the state, Florida's CareerSource centers are working to help beneficiaries meet those requirements," McCord wrote in an email. "Since January 1, 2016, 106,129 people have been placed into new jobs by the state's 24 CareerSource locations."
But others, such as Montford, say the state is diverse, and economic conditions vary.
For instance, in the district of Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, people have been coming to his office for help after losing their food-stamp benefits. He said many are working, but their low-wage jobs don't add up to 20 hours a week.
"They're being penalized even though they're trying, even though their effort is good," Bullard said.
What's more, tens of thousands of Floridians were sanctioned for not complying with the mandate in the first month.
"If you don't comply, what will happen is that you will immediately be sanctioned and lose your food stamps, even though you haven't yet used up your three-month time limit," said Cindy Huddleston of Florida Legal Services.
In January, 67,982 Floridians were sanctioned for not meeting the work requirement, thereby losing their food stamps "for a minimum of one month or until they comply with the work requirement, whichever is longer," according to a letter sent to beneficiaries by the state. For a second act of noncompliance, the penalty is the loss of benefits for at least three months.
"By the nature of the work requirements and the exemptions and exceptions to the work requirements, it's really mostly affecting the most vulnerable people that don't have any other social safety net in place," said Liam McGivern of Legal Services of Greater Miami.
Food-stamp benefits are typically worth $150 to $170 per month. The potential loss of benefits does not apply to people who have children or disabilities or to seniors.
The Department of Children and Families could ask the federal government to waive the work mandate. But a budget bill passed during a special legislative session last June would require the department to get legislative authority before applying for such a waiver.
"I would certainly encourage DCF to approach the Legislature, get permission, and request another waiver," Montford said.
Debra Susie, executive director of Florida Impact, which works to reduce hunger and poverty, said the group is also concerned about what will happen to food banks and other non-profits that were already stretched thin by the recession.