On nights when it's especially cold, Santonio Rogers walks to the Potawatomi Casino in downtown Milwaukee and attempts to sleep in the bathroom. It's warm there, and it usually takes awhile for anyone to notice him amid the bustle. When he gets kicked out, he roams the city or searches for a warming station where he can stay and wait for morning.
Rogers is a 25-year-old felon with epilepsy who hasn't completed high school, which makes it virtually impossible for him to find a job. He's been homeless since September, and his only income until recently was a monthly food stamp disbursement of $194. But a couple months ago, he lost that too.
Not long after he began living on the street, a food stamp program administrator informed Rogers that the rules had recently changed. If he didn't find at least 20 hours of employment per week or enroll in a work training program, his benefits would be cut off in three months. His epilepsy should have exempted him, but he didn't have a doctor's note to prove it, so he signed up for the job training. But being homeless makes life erratic, and he says he was kicked out after missing a few days. He lost his food stamps in December and now relies on charity to eat.
"You're taking from us when we barely have nothing as it is," he told VICE News by phone from Milwaukee.
This year, as many as 1 million Americans in 23 states are expected to lose food aid from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because of stricter rules governing food stamps that have been triggered by falling unemployment rates. But the economy hasn't improved equally for everybody. The black unemployment rate remains double the white rate at 8.8 percent, yet African-Americans like Rogers will be disproportionately harmed by the impending food stamp cuts, which will take effect in most states on April 1.
The stricter food stamp rules are a return to the way things were before the financial crisis. A welfare reform law signed by President Bill Clinton in 1996 contained a provision that said childless, non-disabled food stamp recipients would lose their benefits after three months unless they could find a half-time job, volunteer, or enroll in a state job training program. States with high unemployment, however, can apply for a waiver, and nearly all states received exemptions during the recent recession. But as jobs have returned over the past few years, states have begun to lose their waivers. Some states with Republican governors and legislatures have rejected the waivers even though they are still eligible.
In 2014, several legal groups filed a lawsuit against Ohio alleging that the state retained time-limit waivers in mostly white counties, while rejecting them in minority-heavy areas with high unemployment rates. "It's a sin not to help someone who needs it, but it's equally a sin to continue to help someone who needs to learn how to help themselves," Ohio Governor John Kasich said in his inauguration speech in January 2015.
The three-month clock began ticking on January 1 in almost all of the 23 states that have either lost or forfeited their food stamp waivers this year. That means poor Americans who depend on food aid will begin losing it on April 1 — even if they are actively searching for work. Thirty-five percent of those expected to lose benefits are African-American, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), though they make up only 13 percent of the general population.
'You're taking from us when we barely have nothing as it is.'
Nationally, a total of about 4.7 million food stamp recipients are classified as able-bodied adults (aged 18 to 49) without dependents, and they receive on average $164 per month from SNAP. The 1 million Americans who are expected to lose benefits are a group of deeply impoverished people with little education or skills, who have a hard time finding work in even the best of economic times. Their gross incomes average only $2,000 a year for a household of one, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), which administers the SNAP program. Many are formerly incarcerated and thus barred from certain jobs and housing opportunities.
"You'd think that there'd be more resources for people in those circumstances rather than fewer," says Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst at the CBPP.
Although disabled people are not supposed to be subject to the three-month rule, many of those with physical and mental limitations end up being dropped from the program because they cannot prove their disability, said Elizabeth Lower-Basch, an expert in federal benefits policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
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"[The term] 'able-bodied without dependents' makes you think they are completely healthy and able to work," she explained, "but in many states, unless they're getting disability benefits, the SNAP agency has no way of knowing they have other work limitations."
That was the case for Curtis Sloan-Glenn, a 29-year-old African-American who says he lost his job at a distribution company in Milwaukee last fall when he became ill with gallstones. Sloan-Glenn was forced to go on food stamps for the first time, but then in November he learned he'd have to find a job or enroll in a work training program to continue getting benefits. He couldn't attend the training because he was undergoing surgery and then recovering for a month and a half, but because he could not prove he was temporarily disabled, he lost his $192 a month in food aid.
Even the alternatives available under the three-month provision for those who cannot find work are often not viable. States are not required to provide work training programs, and most do not. And volunteer work often requires gas money or bus fare, which is income that jobless people don't have.
Nineteen of the states that are reimposing the three-month time limit in 2016 are doing so because their employment rates have improved. Four others have chosen to reimpose the time limit despite qualifying for a statewide waiver. In recent years, at least a dozen other states have elected to impose the time limit early. About half of these states are in the South or Southwest and have large proportions of black and Hispanic citizens, which "sort of doubles down on the disproportionate effect on minorities," Lower-Basch said.
When Clinton signed the welfare reforms into law in 1996, he noted that he was deeply disappointed by the three-month time limit, and called for Congress to change it. The USDA has no say in the matter, and did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, which administers the food stamp program in the state, said that the department cannot comment on individual food stamp recipients due to privacy considerations. She did add that those who have lost benefits and are not participating in the state job training program have the option of searching for and enrolling in a non-state worker training program in order to try to regain food aid.
Last year, federal lawmakers introduced bills that would forbid states from ending food assistance without offering the person the chance to participate in a job training program. But with Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress, the chances of such legislation making it to a vote are slim to nil.
In Milwaukee, Rogers isn't despairing about losing his food stamps. He believes he can get himself out of this homelessness mess on his own, even if he feels like the system is rigged against poor folks like himself.
"If you got the low end of the totem pole, you're gonna be stuck in the water drowning because you don't have the right life suit on to help you float," he said. "To me, I feel that's bullshit because everybody matters."
Follow Erika Eichelberger on Twitter: @eichelberger_e