Every day she goes to work as a volunteer at the Murphysboro Food Pantry, Jane Williams meets individuals and families who need help putting food on their tables.
A retired co-owner of a commercial and residential HVAC business, Williams was asked to fill in at the pantry for a couple of weeks back in 2005.
"I’d never been in that position. I didn’t even know there was a real need until I started doing that," Williams said. "I thought I was going to volunteer for two weeks, but I got hooked."
Williams now volunteers as many as 60 hours a week at the pantry in southwestern Illinois and raises money for it.
When she started, the pantry's annual budget was about $20,000, plus what it received from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's food assistance program.
"Now we take in about $200,000 annually, and we also get about 64 percent of all USDA commodities that come into [Jackson] County," she said.
That enables the Murphysboro Food Pantry to remain open five days a week and provide more than 35,000 boxes of food each year to individuals and families from Jackson County, she said.
"I know our pantry provides a necessary and appreciated service to those in need in our community and I am happy we are able to help those single parents, veterans and seniors who have fallen on hard times," she said.
The unpaid position with long hours is rewarding work for Williams, but there is one thing about it that frustrates her: The number of young, healthy adults who take advantage of the system.
"What I am really not happy about," she said, "is that while I'm willing to work literally both day and night to find funding to provide the needy with food, I take exception to providing food to able-bodied folks who just barely manage to get themselves out of bed and to our facility before we close at 11 a.m. each day."
That's why she said she was shocked and disappointed when she learned that the state of Illinois applied for and received a waiver from the USDA that otherwise requires able-bodied adults without dependents to work in order to participate in the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps. Under the requirement, adults who are physically able and who don't have children at home must either be working or participating in a job training program at least 20 hours per week (an average of 80 hours per month), or volunteering with a community service provider for a certain number of hours to receive food stamps.
The Illinois News Network reported earlier this month that the state requested a waiver from the work requirement for all of 2018. That essentially means that healthy adults without children can continue to receive food stamps without even trying to find a job or performing the volunteer work.
The Illinois Department of Human Services, which successfully requested the waiver, justified the decision in a statement to INN.
“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.”
While that might be the case in some situations, Williams said she sees firsthand individuals who are both mentally and physically capable of working game the system, both at the pantry and through the federal food stamp program. For example, she said, she knows of individuals who trade their food stamps for items such as gasoline and rent, and then get food from the pantry.
"I would say that at least 50 percent of the SNAP benefits I see are being abused based on what I see," she said. "The whole system is just so broken."
Williams said she thinks the work requirement is common sense and actually benefits the SNAP recipient.
"If [you] had to get up and go to work or to a community service position every morning at 8 in order to qualify for these currently state-provided services, they might decide it's more beneficial just to get the job rather than stay on the welfare programs," she said. "I don't care if our community has to have them watering the flowers on Main Street or painting the picnic tables in the public park — just make them take some responsibility and learn that nothing should be free in life for those not willing to put in some effort."
Following the work requirement model for SNAP, the Trump administration earlier this month decided to allow U.S. states to develop work-requirement programs for healthy, childless Medicaid recipients.
But what's the point if federal agencies are going to so easily allow states to waive the requirements?