About 50,000 Cook County residents who receive food stamps are going to have to find jobs next year — or risk losing their benefits.
Starting Jan. 1, food stamp recipients in Cook County who are able-bodied, under the age of 50 and not living with children or other dependents will be restricted to three months of food assistance in a three-year period unless they work at least 30 hours a week. They can also meet the requirement by participating in a work-related activity, such as job training or volunteering, for at least 20 hours a week.
The vast majority of Illinois’ 1.8 million SNAP recipients — most of whom are either elderly, children or people with disabilities — are unaffected by the change. But it will be a huge shift in Cook County, where 50,000 of the county’s 826,000 food stamp recipients will be subject to work requirements for the first time since the federal rules went into effect in the mid-1990s.
State officials and social service groups worry people who struggle to find or keep jobs will be driven out of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP or food stamps, leaving them hungry and putting pressure on food pantries. They say there isn’t enough federal funding to help connect them with jobs.
“Quite frankly, a lot of the folks who are not able to meet those requirements will not participate in the program and just drop out,” said Grace Hou, secretary of the Illinois Department of Human Services. Single adults receive, on average, $200 a month in food aid.
The change is the result of Cook County’s falling unemployment rate. Federal law allows states to request waivers from the work requirements for localities with high unemployment rates or where jobs are scarce, indicated by local unemployment rates that are 20% higher than the national average over a 24-month period.
Illinois, like other states, received waivers for the entire state for many years. That changed in 2018, when DuPage County’s unemployment rate fell so low that it was excluded from the waiver, subjecting about 2,100 people to work requirements.
Now Cook County’s unemployment rate is also too low to qualify for the waiver. Last month the Illinois Department of Human Services submitted a waiver request for every county in the state except Cook and DuPage, where unemployment rates averaged 3.9% over the 24-month period. The national average was 4%.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds SNAP, is reviewing the state’s waiver request and is expected to approve it.
While low unemployment rates are generally something to celebrate, some worry tying food assistance to a person’s ability to land a steady job will increase food insecurity.
The DuPage Federation on Human Services Reform estimates more than 2,000 adults lost SNAP benefits as a result of the policy change there, even though there are plenty of available jobs, said Executive Director David Roth. Many affected people work as janitors, nursing aides or cooks, but they didn’t work enough hours or fell through administrative cracks, he said.
“Lack of food security forces difficult choices on workers — who have to shift money away from rent, transportation and medicine to purchase food,” Roth said.
Many food stamp recipients in Cook County would satisfy the work criteria, but some are in unstable jobs with insufficient hours. Others struggle to find employment given low levels of education, criminal backgrounds, transportation hurdles, or undiagnosed mental or physical disabilities, and there aren’t enough federal resources to help them succeed, officials said.
“The federal government requires us to operate a training program, but they don’t administer enough funds to provide quality services to every individual we are required to serve,” said Dan Lyonsmith, associate director of workforce development at the Illinois Department of Human Services.
To prepare for the possibility of new work requirements, the state agency over the past few years has conducted assessments to determine if those who could be affected would qualify for another exemption, such as those tied to substance abuse problems or mental health issues, said Leslie Cully, associate director of Family and Community Resource Centers. They also have worked to identify those who already meet the requirements to ensure they continue to receive benefits, she said.
The agency is establishing specialty teams in its Cook and DuPage offices to connect affected food stamp recipients with employment and activities to help them comply. It is partnering with community groups, community colleges, workforce development agencies and entities like the state Department of Employment Security and the state Department of Commerce and Employment Opportunity to find more work opportunities.
And for those who can’t, or don’t want to, comply, it is also working with food pantries to ensure people don’t go hungry.
“Unfortunately, there’s not one thing that we can do to address this issue,” Hou said. “It will be a variety of resources we have to weave together.”
The Greater Chicago Food Depository, a food bank that supplies the area’s food pantries, said it is working with the state and partner organizations “to respond to what likely will be an increased need for food assistance in our communities,” spokesman Greg Trotter said.
The organization is concerned the work threshold will be difficult for many people to meet.
“Simply put, taking away their food assistance isn’t going to help them find work,” Trotter said.
The change for Cook County comes as the Trump administration tries to make it harder for states to obtain waivers from work requirements, arguing that the current rules allow for waivers where jobs are not scarce. It is set to issue a final rule on the topic next month, one of several attempts to scale back the nation’s food assistance program, which feeds 38 million people.
Its initial proposal included a prohibition on waivers for areas with an unemployment rate below 7% and limits to how states can combine geographic areas to show evidence of job scarcity. Based on the proposed criteria, 90% of able-bodied, childless adults in the country would be subject to work requirements, the USDA said, up from 60% under the current rules. USDA estimated 755,000 people across the country would lose food stamps for failure to comply with the work requirements, saving it $7.9 billion in SNAP payouts over five years.
If that rule is implemented, Illinois and other states would likely have to resubmit waiver requests under the tightened criteria, resulting in many more people being subject to the work requirements. About 8% of Illinois food stamp recipients, or 141,000 people, are able-bodied adults without children. The Illinois Department of Human Services opposed the proposed changes.