Gov. Bobby Jindal’s decision to cut off federal food assistance for working-age adults may sound like a good idea at first. Who doesn’t think people should work if they have the ability? But the reality in many parts of Louisiana is that these benefits are sorely needed, because the economy simply isn’t performing up to snuff. It might not be obvious in Baton Rouge, where job growth is strong, but the “Louisiana Miracle” continues to elude large parts of our state.
First, some background: The 1996 welfare reform law limited able-bodied adults to three months of federal food assistance over a three-year period. But it also made exceptions for states such as Louisiana that are experiencing high unemployment. These states have the option of applying for a full waiver of the three-month limit — which covers the whole state — or a partial waiver that applies to areas where jobs are hardest to find.
Data from the Louisiana Workforce Commission tells us the Alexandria, Lafayette, Houma, Monroe, New Orleans and Shreveport areas all had fewer jobs in August than a year earlier. Only Baton Rouge and Lake Charles had year-over-year job growth.
In some parts of rural Louisiana and the delta, unemployment is far above the national average. Tumbling oil prices mean workers in some south Louisiana parishes soon will need extra assistance.
While job growth has been sluggish, more people than ever are looking for work. Louisiana has 56,600 more jobs compared with before the Great Recession but 126,300 more people in the labor force.
There just aren’t enough jobs out there for every person who needs one. While there may be some folks who refuse to work, many others can’t find jobs or have legitimate reasons for not working, such as lack of transportation or the need to care for a sick relative. For those who are left behind, the federal government makes food assistance available so they won’t go hungry. All Louisiana has to do is apply for these dollars.
The state’s refusal to take advantage of these federal dollars won’t create a single job and won’t do anything to help fix Louisiana’s chronic budget shortfalls. But it will deprive neighborhood grocers of up to $150 million a year in revenue that helps support jobs in every community.
Instead of an arbitrary time limit, a better option for the state is to apply for waivers for high-need areas while we wait for the job market to improve. Louisianans are compassionate people. We lend a helping hand to our neighbors when times are tough. Our state government should do the same.
director, Louisiana Budget Project