The recession may be over, but people who are still without jobs haven't noticed.
When many thousands still need help is not the time for the state to cut back on the basic assistance food stamps provide. Nonetheless, that's what the Department of Workforce Services would do.
The DWS wants to reinstate a federal rule suspended at the start of the Great Recession that limits the time unemployed people can receive food stamps. Adults 18-49 would be eligible for only three months within a 36-month period unless they are pregnant, live in areas highly impacted by poverty (Garfield, San Juan, Grand and Wayne counties in Utah) or are mentally or physically unable to work.
The federal government will reimpose the old rule Oct. 1, but states can request an extension beyond that day. The DWS does not plan to ask for an extension, saying it has ways to get long-term unemployed Utahns back on the job.
We agree that should be the goal, but we're not there yet. Utah's statewide unemployment rate has dropped to 6 percent. But unemployment is causing real hardship for the 7.8 percent of Washington County residents still without jobs, the 8.1 percent in Sanpete, and the more than 7 percent unemployed in Emery, Box Elder and Weber counties.
It's just too soon after the worst recession in decades to assume that most people can get decent jobs if they want to work. Withholding food assistance is unlikely to force people back to work in places where there simply aren't enough jobs.
Long-term unemployment remains high especially among workers older than 50 and young people just entering the job market. In some cases retraining can help older workers find jobs in new fields, and DWS is right to focus resources in those programs.
But until unemployment numbers shrink outside the Wasatch Front, many of the 80,000 Utahns without jobs will need to rely on food stamps longer than for three months.
Once the time is right to again impose the limitations, Utah should also reinstitute waivers that were part of the old rule. Those provisions did not count against the three-month benefit limit any month in which a recipient worked an average of 80 hours, participated in certain volunteer programs or received help from the Refugee Cash Assistance program. It should reinstate extended benefits to people enrolled in approved training programs, and a $50 stipend to help cover job-search expenses.
There will always be people who abuse assistance programs, but, nevertheless, Utah should continue to help those who are truly struggling.
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