Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards makes key cabinet appointments, including DOTD chief _lowres

Advocate staff photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Louisiana Governor-Elect John Bel Edwards speaks at a press conference announcing personnel appointments, Wednesday, December 16, 2015, at LSU's West Campus Apartments' Activity Building in Baton Rouge, La.

Gov.-elect John Bel Edwards is moving to block a proposed change in food stamp eligibility requirements that could kick thousands of Louisiana residents off the Supplemental Nutrition and Assistance Program.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration in October announced that it would not seek a federal waiver to allow low-income, able-bodied, unemployed adults without dependents to continue receiving food stamp benefits if they have not sought workforce training.

The change would have gone into effect Jan. 1, but Edwards, who takes office Jan. 11, is asking the federal government and the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services to avoid any interruption before he takes over.

“I will take the next year to work with DCFS and the Louisiana Legislature to develop programs that offer workforce training and assistance to those on SNAP benefits,” Edwards said in a statement.

Food stamp benefits average about $194 a month in Louisiana, but SNAP is federally funded, so no state money would be saved through the change.

A group in New Orleans filed a federal lawsuit last week seeking to stop the new eligibility requirement. Stand With Dignity, a grass-roots group that’s involved in the lawsuit, also has organized hunger strikes and circulated petitions to raise attention.

In a statement Monday, Stand lead organizer Colette Tippy praised Edwards’ efforts to thwart what the group referred to as “Jindal’s starvation plan.”

“We know that Gov.-elect Edwards cares about fighting poverty, and his action today shows it. Taking food out of people’s mouths doesn’t create jobs, and it doesn’t break down the barriers to employment that low-income people and people of color face,” Tippy said.

The group’s class action suit, which was brought on behalf of recipients who would lose benefits if the state didn’t seek a federal waiver, argues that the change is unconstitutional because people were not given adequate notices.

“Without continued access to SNAP as mandated by due process and federal law, these individuals face hunger and serious health risk,” the suit claims.

According to Edwards, the Department of Children and Family Services estimates that 31,000 people faced the potential loss of benefits Jan. 1 because they had not met the new requirement in the past three months. That figure originally was around 64,000 people, but more than half have since met the new requirement.

DCFS also told Edwards’ transition team that the adults affected would typically begin receiving their January electronic deposits the week before he is sworn in.

DCFS didn’t respond to emails and phone calls from The Advocate seeking comment.

Louisiana is one of 31 states that can seek a federal work requirement waiver because of its high unemployment rate.

But Jindal spokesman Mike Reed defended the administration’s decision not to seek another waiver when the previous one expired.

“The best way to break the cycle of poverty is for individuals to get a job and get off of government assistance,” he said in an email. “Having a job is empowering. This decision will mean more able-bodied Louisianians will be dependent on the government and discouraged from joining the workforce.”

The department similarly defended the new employment requirement when it was first announced this fall, with state Department of Children and Family Services Secretary Suzy Sonnier calling the change a “win-win.”

“We believe that the more people work, the better for the state, the better for the individual and their families,” she said.

Under the new policy, food stamp recipients without children would have to work at least 20 hours a week — either in a paid job or in a volunteer or non-paid capacity — or be enrolled in a federally approved job training program. DCFS said it was working with working with the Louisiana Workforce Commission to help people find jobs and skills training.

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