By Greg Bishop / Watchdog.org
A government accountability group says the state of Illinois is fudging employment data in order to allow more healthy Illinoisans to receive taxpayer-funded food stamps without having to work.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture approved an Illinois Department of Human Services waiver request in October for the entire 2018 calendar year. The move means able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) can continue to get food stamps without having to seek work.
In a USDA letter to DHS obtained by Illinois News Network, the federal agency said the state “may waive the applicability of the 3-month ABAWD time limit for any group of individuals in the State if the Secretary makes a determination that the area in which the individuals reside has an unemployment rate of over 10 percent, or does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for the individuals.”
USDA based the waiver off numbers provided by Illinois officials that showed an unemployment rate of 5.9 percent. That number was generated by combining two years worth of data, 2015 to 2017, from all Illinois counties unemployment data except DuPage County, and fit USDA’s requirement of an aggregate average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average.
“During this time period, the national average unemployment rate was 4.95 percent; 20 percent above that rate is 5.9 percent,” USDA’s letter said.
Jonathan Ingram, vice president of research at Foundation for Government Accountability, said Illinois fudged its numbers to get the waiver.
“What the state did is it combined all these counties together so that when you combine a higher unemployment county with a lower one, it brings the average up,” Ingram said. “So they used this gimmick and loophole to really exempt virtually the entire state from these common-sense work requirements.”
Ingram said the numbers game Illinois played should send a signal to the Trump administration to forbid such tactics to save taxpayers money.
DHS said the waiver means 174,000 Illinoisans will remain eligible for the benefit for 2018.
“The individuals who qualify for [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] under this waiver are called Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents. However, we’ve found this name can be misleading,” a statement from DHS said. “Research has shown that many of these individuals have significant barriers to gaining employment like mental illnesses, substance use disorders, justice involvement, and significant physical limitations.”
Ingram said even though food stamps are mostly federally funded, the net result of Illinois’ waiver will cost state taxpayers.
“Taxpayers continue to pay more and more money for able-bodied adults to be on welfare, crowding out resources for other critical priorities like education, public safety, infrastructure,” Ingram said, “every other priority that taxpayers have.”
Federal data show that fewer than 20 percent of healthy, childless adults on food stamps in Illinois are working, Ingram said.
“Work is critically important to achieving self-sufficiency …” he said. “After work requirements were implemented in other states, those leaving welfare went back to work in more than 600 different industries. They found work, worked more hours, and their incomes more than doubled on average.”
Ingram also said the work requirement would provide budget relief to Illinois, which despite a $5 billion income tax increase last year is still operating on a deficit.
“Higher wages for those moving from welfare to work would mean increased income tax collections and fewer people relying on other state-funded programs, including Medicaid,” he said.
DHS said it will use the one-year waiver period for pilot programs to transition the able-bodied population to self-sufficiency and touted numbers from previous years.
“In FY17, 11,459 Illinois households transitioned off [SNAP] due to increased earnings, which is a 32 percent increase from the previous fiscal year,” a DHS statement said. “In the first quarter of FY18, 4,591 SNAP households transitioned off SNAP in Illinois due to increased earnings … We intend to continue to support our SNAP customers to help them achieve self-sufficiency.”
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