People in about one in seven Georgia households struggle with hunger, which often leads to costly health complications, lower energy levels and a diminished ability to concentrate. But as 2017 rapidly approaches, an estimated 21,100 Georgians will be at an increased risk for hunger due to a geographic expansion of time limits on food assistance.

Access to food assistance is at risk due to changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly called food stamps). Both work requirements and a three-month time limit are built into the program’s rules.

Under these federal rules, 21,100 non-disabled Georgians from 18 to 49 without children in their homes will be limited to receiving food stamps for only three months in a three-year period, unless they are employed or participate in a work or training program for at least 20 hours per week. For the vast majority of these 21,100 Georgians this clock begins ticking in January 2017. More than 2,000 Georgians in Cobb, Hall, and Gwinnett counties were already at risk this year. Even the most relentless job-seeking Georgian stands to lose food assistance.

States are permitted to suspend this time limit in places with high unemployment. All of Georgia qualified for this relief during the recession. However, as some employment rates across Georgia improved since the recession, adults in Cobb, Hall, and Gwinnett counties were the first to suffer from the time limit beginning in January 2016. The time limit expired for 6,100 adults ensnared by the rule last April and 70 percent of them lost food assistance. No evidence is available to show these adults gained employment or increased their work hours after being cut off from food stamps.

Employment rates improved in more local economies across Georgia in 2016, triggering the time limit in 24 Georgia counties in 2017. Though more Georgians are at risk of losing food aid in the coming year, this harm can be mitigated by offering an opportunity to participate in a work or training program for at least 20 hours per week. The state’s Department of Human Services is seeking new community partners to provide these opportunities, though that isn’t required.

Georgia policymakers can also prevent even more people from facing hunger and its attendant ills by rejecting calls to fast-track an expansion of the three-month time limit statewide in 2017. Quickening the expansion of the three-month time limit would accelerate millions of dollars in administrative costs to the state, in addition to heightening the risk of hardship for more Georgians.

The new year should be a time for excitement and new opportunity, not looming hardship and despair.  Goodwill of North Georgia and other community partners can work with Georgia policymakers to take targeted steps to move Georgians in the right direction in 2017.

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