GARY | As she input inventory numbers into a computer at her local food bank Tuesday, Gary resident Jessica Lipscomb said she was glad to be out of the house.
She'd been out of work for several months. She says she had to quit her last job, in medical billing, because she didn't have reliable transportation.
Then she got a letter from the state earlier this year, saying she would have to find or train for a job if she wanted to keep receiving food stamps. While she hasn't found employment yet, she participates in job training at the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana, doing data entry there two mornings a week. She gets there by bus.
"I've tried to find a job, but I haven't seen anything I could get into," said Lipscomb, 30. "I don't have a high-school diploma or GED."
Lipscomb is one of thousands of Northwest Indiana residents who will lose their food stamps in November if they aren't working or training for a job by that time. Amid the Great Recession, in 2009, the state suspended work requirements for food stamps, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, under a provision of the federal stimulus package. That legislation expired this year.
Because of that, able-bodied Hoosiers who are younger than 50 and don't have dependents will have to work 20 hours a week or participate in a job-training program to continue receiving SNAP benefits. This applies to 6,782 people in Lake County, 738 people in Porter County and 1,080 people in LaPorte County, the state Family and Social Services Administration said.
If beneficiaries don't meet the rules, they'll be limited to three months of food stamps every three years. The state hopes this will transition able-bodied Hoosiers back into the workforce.
However, state Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said he would like to see waivers given in parts of the state, such as Lake County, that still struggle with above-average jobless rates.
"Granted, we don't have the high unemployment we had a couple of years of ago," he said. "Nonetheless, in certain areas of the state or certain areas of the county, we still don't have the plethora of jobs available where folks can readily put in those 20 hours."
He believes that, come November, the strain on local social-service agencies will be great. The unemployment rates for Lake (6.7 percent), Porter (5.4 percent) and LaPorte (5.8 percent) counties are all above the statewide percentage of 4.7.
Becky Damron, coordinator of the Fairhaven Baptist Church food pantry in Chesterton, said that while her pantry has been able to keep up with a steadily increasing demand in recent months, she isn't sure what would happen if it experienced a sudden influx of needy residents.
"I don't know what the future holds," she said. "I wish I had my crystal ball."
Several agencies in Northwest Indiana have stepped forward to be work-experience sites for SNAP beneficiaries who can't immediately find employment. They include Gary YMCA, Gary Catholic Charities, Hammond Boys & Girls Club, Catholic Charities of East Chicago, Greater Hammond Service, Habitat for Humanity of Northwest Indiana, Anew Life Youth Development Corp. in Gary, Portage YMCA, Chesterton High School, Delivery & Victory in Michigan City, Keys to Hope Community Resource Center in Michigan City and Worthy Recovery in LaPorte.
The Food Bank of Northwest Indiana, the food-distribution center for pantries in Lake and Porter counties, serves about 15,000 people a month and expects that number to rise in November, the deadline for the new work requirements. But in a strange twist, the agency is getting a boost in its volunteer labor force thanks to that same rule change: Twelve local residents are now training at the Gary food bank.
"We know how hard it is to find employment in the region," said Arleen Peterson, executive director of the Food Bank of Northwest Indiana. "We want to be a support system beyond just giving food."
The agency is trying to match people with their career interests, and help them get certified in skills such as food safety and using fork lifts.
"We've been able to increase the number of staff and support we have at the food bank, to help us get more food out the door," Peterson said.
"We just want folks to understand that in the role of giving out food there are viable job skills that you can learn."
Moritza Carter, a food-stamp recipient from Gary, has been doing inventory, stocking shelves and packing boxes at the food bank the past few weeks. The 47-year-old said she hasn't been able to find a job because she doesn't have the work history employers are looking for. She hopes that changes with the experience she's getting at the Gary facility.
"I want to find something I can really get good at with a good company and move my way up," she said, noting she enjoys warehouse work. "I'm not defeated. I think something's going to happen."