Hundreds of thousands of America’s poorest adults will soon lose access to the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, as 22 states reinstate the program’s work requirements.
The change will affect more than 500,000 unemployed able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 who don’t have minor children living with them, according to Stateline, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The work provision, which was implemented as part of the 1996 welfare law, limits SNAP benefits to three months during any three-year period for adults who aren’t employed or in a qualified work or training program for a minimum of 20 hours per week.
States with high unemployment rates (above 10 percent) or those that can prove there’s a lack of available jobs can apply for a waiver for the work provision. The government waived the work requirement for most states in 2009, when the Great Recession made finding and keeping a job tough for many Americans.
But now that the economy has improved, most states have had to or have chosen to reinstate the provision. Stateline says now all but seven states — California, Illinois, Louisiana, Michigan, Nevada, Rhode Island and South Carolina — and the District of Columbia have work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents in at least part of the state.
The work requirement can be especially harsh for jobless Americans who are actively trying but unable to find employment, according to the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Because this provision denies basic food assistance to people who want to work and will accept any job or work program slot offered, it is effectively a severe time limit rather than a work requirement, as such requirements are commonly understood. Work requirements in public assistance programs typically require people to look for work and accept any job or employment program slot that is offered but do not cut off people who are willing to work and looking for a job simply because they can’t find one.
Critics of the work provision say it’s especially unfair in states that lack programs to help jobless adults find work or get training for employment.
“If the state doesn’t provide any of these [programs], you’re out of luck,” Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the CBPP, told Stateline. “And that model doesn’t lead people to get jobs — it makes them desperate.”
Data from Kansas, which restored work requirements in 2013, show that the work requirements do get people working, says Jonathan Ingram, vice president of research at the Foundation for Government Accountability.
Ingram told Stateline that after the work requirement was reinstated, 12,807 of the 25,913 recipients it affected left the food stamp program. He said half of those that left found employment within three months. Of those that remained on food stamps, the work participation rate increased from 13 to 35 percent, Ingram noted.
“That’s the whole point of the work requirement is you want to get these able-bodied adults working,” he told Stateline. “What they really need is a good-paying job, not more welfare.”
About 1 in 10 recipients of food stamps are considered able-bodied adults without dependent children, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They receive an average of $191 in food stamps each month. These are typically the poorest Americans, both from a monetary and an educational standpoint.
“When we’re talking about this population, they’ve got low levels of skill, and the job market is still soft. They’re the first fired and the last to be re-hired,” Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brooking Institution, told Pacific Standard. “Taking away this meager benefit, it would be surprising to me if we then saw a big response of people working. The reason that these people are not working is not because they’re saying, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t want to lose my food stamp benefits.'”
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