Gov. Bruce Rauner has decided to take steps to allow more than 200,000 Illinois residents to remain eligible for food stamps, averting a threatened year-end cutoff that had alarmed social service advocates.

Sources in the Rauner administration said the governor will apply to renew a federal waiver that since 2009 has exempted Illinois from a federal requirement placing a time limit on some food stamp recipients.

The waiver applies to unemployed adults ages 18 to 49 who are not disabled or raising minor children.

The affected individuals, referred to as Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, otherwise would be subject to a limit of three months of food assistance during any 36-month period if they are not working or engaged in a training program at least 20 hours a week.


News of Rauner’s decision was greeted with relief by advocates who had warned reinstating the time limit could cause grave hardship to some of the state’s poorest residents.

Although it is generally agreed that the state meets the qualifications for the waiver — intended for areas with high and sustained unemployment — there was concern Rauner might not pursue it because of pressure from conservatives who regard it as a wasteful loophole.

In a letter sent to the governor last month, more than 100 organizations cautioned him that invoking the time limit would result in “more hungry people in line at our food banks and more patients returning to our clinics and hospitals because they cannot afford regular access to food.”

The letter described the beneficiaries as “veterans struggling to find work, men and women experiencing homelessness or living with serious and persistent mental illnesses, and mothers and fathers who took time away from the workforce to raise their children.”

The letter was signed by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, Heartland Alliance, Illinois Hunger Coalition, Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and the Cook County Health and Hospitals System, among others.

These days food stamps are officially known as SNAP benefits, short for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. More than 1.9 million Illinois residents received SNAP benefits in September.

As you might expect, this particular subset of “able-bodied” food stamp recipients has been described somewhat less charitably in other political circles, with those who argue that the program is a disincentive to work.

I’m told the question of whether to seek the waiver led to internal disagreements within the Rauner administration.

The governor’s final decision was said to be based on the state’s lagging jobs picture and the need for significant information technology upgrades in the Department of Human Services to connect the affected food stamp recipients with jobs.

“It is the right thing to do because many Illinoisans are still struggling,” the source said. “Obviously, our economy is not where we want it to be.”

Rauner blames the state’s struggles on the Illinois Legislature not passing his proposals. I have some disagreements about that, but this isn’t the time or place.

Dan Lesser, director of economic justice at the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law, was among those delighted by the news.

“I think the governor deserves credit for this,” Lesser said, noting the waiver “has been a cause celebre for the extreme right.”

Jim Conwell, a spokesman for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, also applauded Rauner’s decision. He pointed out those affected by the waiver often face greater barriers to finding a job, such as low education levels, mental health problems, criminal records or homelessness.

Lesser said he expects this will be the last year Illinois qualifies for the waiver, which gives the state one year to prepare to implement the time limit “as humanely as possible.”

Rauner’s people stressed they hope to have changes in place in the coming months to connect food stamp recipients with work opportunities.

What happened here is that I set out to write about a looming crisis and learned the crisis had been averted. Works for me.