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Waivers Add Key State Flexibility to SNAP’s Three-Month Time Limit

March 24, 2017

One of the harshest rules in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) limits unemployed individuals aged 18 to 50 not living with children to three months of SNAP benefits in any 36-month period when they aren’t employed or in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.[1]  Under the rule, implemented as part of the 1996 welfare law, states are not obligated to offer all individuals a work or training program slot, and most do not.  SNAP recipients’ benefits are cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job or willing to participate in a qualifying work or job training program.  As a result, this rule is a time limit on benefits and not a work requirement, as it is sometimes described.

In addition to being harsh policy that punishes individuals who are willing to work, the rule is one of the most error-prone aspects of SNAP law.In addition to being harsh policy that punishes individuals who are willing to work, the rule is one of the most administratively complex and error-prone aspects of SNAP law.  Many states also believe the rule undermines their efforts to design meaningful work requirements as the time limit imposes unrealistic dictates on the types of qualifying job training.  For these reasons, many states have long sought the rule’s repeal.

The time limit law does provide states with the ability to seek waivers from the Agriculture Department (USDA), which administers SNAP, to temporarily suspend the three-month limit for individuals in areas with insufficient jobs.  Since the passage of the welfare law, states have sought waivers for counties, cities, or reservations with relatively high and sustained unemployment.  Every state except Delaware has sought a waiver at some point since the time limit’s enactment.  This authority is a relief to states and local jurisdictions that find the rule unduly harsh and administratively burdensome.[2]  The waiver also helps non-profit service providers located in areas with high unemployment and with limited means to expand their services such as food banks, homeless shelters, and health clinics, which experience greater demand without the waiver as clients lose benefits and are in greater need of services. 

States have sought waivers for a variety of reasons.  In some cases, states with areas that have a persistently struggling labor market, such as the Central Valley in California or rural West Virginia, have sought waivers to avoid penalizing those who cannot find a 20-hour-per-week job within three months.  In other cases, governors have sought waivers because extraordinary events have hurt their local labor markets, such as the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill, Hurricane Katrina, or layoffs from a major local employer. 

Many states also seek waivers from the time limit because they would prefer to devote the resources needed to implement the administratively complex time limit to implementing a more rational and appropriate work requirement tailored to their local economy and available job training programs.

 

Figure 1
Share of Population Waived from SNAP's 3-Month Time Limit Peaked in Recession

 

USDA’s firm guidelines regarding waiver criteria have limited the waivers’ scope.  A review of waivers over the last 20 years shows that just over a third of the country (as measured by share of the total population living in waived counties) is waived in a typical year.  (See Figure 1.)  During the recession and its aftermath, Congress made a large portion of the country temporarily eligible for a time limit waiver in recognition of widespread elevated unemployment.  Some have misinterpreted this temporary expansion of waivers as a permanent expansion of the policy or an Obama Administration-led effort to eliminate the time limit.

This paper provides an overview of the SNAP time limit waiver criteria and a summary of the main reasons states seeks waivers, and highlights how the waiver criteria fall short in recognizing the difficulties that many subject to this rule face in finding consistent work for 20 hours a week.

Waivers Are Available Only in High-Unemployment Areas

When the time limit was being debated in Congress as part of the 1996 welfare law, its proponents claimed that the proposed rule was not intended to terminate benefits for people who were willing to work.  Then-Congressman and co-author of the provision John Kasich said, “It is only if you are able-bodied, if you are childless, and if you live in an area where you are getting food stamps and there are jobs available, then it applies.”[3]  The rule was designed to permit states to seek waivers in areas where jobs are not available.  To qualify for a waiver, states must provide detailed evidence of high unemployment in local areas according to rigorous requirements set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).  USDA has consistently used the same criteria to define high unemployment since the late 1990s.

The federal law gives states the option to request a waiver of the time limit if they can document an unemployment rate of over 10 percent or an insufficient number of jobs.  The standards that define how a state may document “insufficient jobs” were first fully codified in regulations under the Bush Administration in 2001 (and essentially reflect guidance set in the late 1990s).  In setting the waiver criteria, USDA adhered to long-time Labor Department standards to identify areas with labor market weakness.  To qualify for the insufficient jobs standard, a state must demonstrate that a geographic area meets specific criteria:

  • An average unemployment rate that is at least 20 percent above the national average over a recent 24-month time period.  This standard tracks the Labor Department’s definition of a Labor Surplus Area — a criterion several federal agencies use to prioritize government contracts or assistance within the area.[4]
  • States with unemployment rates that meet the criteria to qualify for an additional 13 weeks of Extended Benefits (EB) under the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program.  These criteria, which establish that a state is experiencing high unemployment, are set in law by Congress.[5]
  • A low and declining employment-to-population ratio.[6]  This is another measure labor economists use to capture weak labor markets in areas where there is a notable lack of jobs relative to the share of the working-age population.  States have used this criteria sparingly, and USDA requires states to demonstrate additional evidence of weak labor markets for approval.[7]  Typically only a handful of rural counties and Indian reservations receive waivers under this criteria in any given year. 

The regulations also allow states to make the case for a specific area using an academic study or other publication.  USDA has very rarely approved these requests (primarily under the Bush Administration), and usually only when accompanied with additional data, such as demonstrating a spike in unemployment or a significant company layoff that affects local labor markets.  

USDA has not issued major policy changes since the criteria were initially published in 2001, and state waivers requests have consistently been evaluated according to this criteria.

Congressional Action to Expand Waivers During the Great Recession

In response to the 2007 recession, Congress temporarily expanded the circumstances under which an area could qualify for a waiver.  These temporary policies were the only two expansions in waiver criteria since the time limit took effect in 1996. 

  • In recognition of the depth of the Great Recession in terms of job loss and increased hardship for unemployed workers, Congress enacted the federal Emergency Unemployment Benefits (EUC) program in 2008.  EUC, like the federal emergency unemployment insurance programs enacted in every major recession since 1958, is a temporary program that provides additional weeks of UI to qualifying jobless workers during periods when jobs are hard to find.[8]  EUC established several “tiers,” or a given number of additional weeks of UI, available to workers in each state depending on the unemployment rate; while every state qualified for the first (and at some points the second) tiers of EUC, workers in states with higher rates would be in higher tiers and could receive more weeks of benefits.[9]  Because qualifying for higher tiers of benefits under EUC signified high unemployment and a lack of jobs (just like the ongoing EB program), the Bush Administration therefore allowed states to qualify for a waiver based on qualifying for at least the second tier of EUC, believing EUC to be a temporary equivalent of EB.[10]

    Congress extended and modified the program several times, allowing it to operate through January 1, 2014.[11]  Many states qualified for at least the second tier of EUC through December 2013.  As a result, they qualified for statewide waivers from the time limit into 2015, since USDA approved one-year waivers up to one year from the date they qualified for EUC.

  • Meanwhile, the 2009 Recovery Act suspended the time limit nationwide for part of 2009 and all of fiscal year 2010.  States had the option to retain the time limit if they offered work opportunities, such as job training and workfare, to all individuals subject to the rule.  During this time, states did not have to request a waiver under the existing criteria, even though almost every state qualified under it due to the exceptionally high levels of unemployment across the country at the time. The suspension of the time limit ended in September 2011.  Most states continued to qualify for statewide waivers under EUC-related and longstanding USDA criteria after the end of the Recovery Act waiver.

The requirement that states demonstrate to USDA that an area exceeds a high threshold of persistent unemployment in order to qualify for a waiver has limited the waivers’ scope.  A review of waivers over the last 20 years shows that just over a third of the country (as measured by share of the total population living in waived counties) is waived in a typical year.[12]  Only during the recession and its aftermath was more than half the county temporarily waived from the time limit, and that was due to widespread elevated unemployment.  Some have misinterpreted this temporary expansion of waivers as a permanent expansion of the policy or an Obama Administration-led effort to eliminate the time limit. 

Why Do States Seek Waivers?

Individual state decisions to seek a time limit waiver have varied over time depending on their leadership and the economic circumstances at the time of their request.  USDA’s Office of Inspector General documented states’ motivation in a recent audit of this policy.[13] 

  • The time limit provision is extremely complicated and difficult to administer.  States have expressed their deep concerns with the complexity of the time limit provision since its passage in 1996.  The rule requires them to track individuals with a level of specificity and limited flexibility that is inconsistent with how they otherwise operate SNAP and other low-income assistance programs.  States find the rule to be error prone and believe that it can undermine their payment error rate.  As a result, some states seek waivers to ease the administrative burden associated with the rule.
  • Waiving the time limit allows states to set a genuine work requirement.  Under the time limit, states are not required to offer a job or training program to every individual, nor do they have sufficient funds through the SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) program to do so.  And the law limits the types of slots a state can provide, making them expensive and out of sync with the needs of this population.  As a result, very few states commit to serving all individuals under the time limit.  Waivers, however, can make meaningful work requirements a reality. 

    A state requesting a waiver of the three-month time limit can still require individuals to engage in work-related activities as a condition of receiving benefits through the SNAP E&T program.  Every state operates a SNAP E&T program, through which the state can provide a wide range of activities to a broad range of individuals who are able to work.  While there is little evidence that SNAP E&T requirements lead to long-term sustainable jobs, they do allow a state to require a SNAP participant to engage in work activities in order to remain eligible.  

    States can — and do — require SNAP participants to participate in a job search program as a way of testing an individual’s willingness to work to remain eligible.  These job search programs are relatively inexpensive to operate.  But, job search is explicitly prohibited from being a qualifying E&T activity for childless adults subject to the time limit.  The only activities states are allowed to offer to individuals subject to the time limit are job training, education, and workfare programs — which are typically too expensive to offer to all individuals.  And, this population might not be a state’s first priority for such investments.   If a childless adult is unable to find such a slot, he or she still loses benefits after three months, despite showing effort and willingness to work.  Waivers allow states to ensure they are denying benefits based only on bad conduct, not bad luck.

  • States wish to protect individuals living in relatively high unemployment areas.  Even in states with relatively low statewide unemployment rates, parts of the state may have significantly weaker labor markets, with few jobs available.  The flexibility that allows states to apply for area waivers was recognition that parts of a state may have insufficient jobs for low-income workers.  For example, some states may seek waivers for areas where a dominant industry is struggling.

    States frequently use waiver authority for rural areas, where about three-quarters of adults say good jobs are hard to come by where they live (compared with 62 percent of those living in urban or suburban communities).[14]  Urban areas have recovered jobs lost in the recession, while rural areas remained below pre-recession levels in the second quarter of 2016.[15]  Georgia, Oregon, and Washington have waived higher unemployment rural areas of the state, even if their more urban areas with lower unemployment rates are not eligible.

Waiver Authority Is Insufficient

While a waiver offers a welcome temporary reprieve from the time limit for individuals living in areas with high unemployment, both the waiver authority and the underlying time limit are not responsive to the labor market conditions facing many people subject to the rule — even in areas of low unemployment — because they encounter difficulty finding employment.  Geographic waivers therefore provide inadequate protection for individuals subject to the time limit, and the underlying rule does not allow states the option to fully exempt all individuals who face insufficient job opportunities for reasons other than area unemployment.

Many of the individuals subject to the time limit struggle to find employment even in normal economic times.  Those subject to this rule are extremely poor, tend to have limited education, and sometimes face barriers to work such as a criminal justice history or racial discrimination.

They also tend to have less education which is associated with higher unemployment rates.  About a quarter have less than a high school education, and half have only a high school diploma or GED.[16]  SNAP participants subject to the three-month cutoff are more likely than other SNAP participants to lack basic job skills like reading, writing, and basic mathematics, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).[17]  

 Unemployment rates for lower-skilled workers tend to be high.  The unemployment rate for people lacking a high school diploma or GED — who make up about a quarter of all non-disabled childless adults on SNAP — stood at 7.4 percent in 2016, while the overall unemployment rate was 4.9 percent.[18]  (See Figure 2.)  Unemployment rates for workers in many lower-skilled occupations, such as those in the service industries, are also substantially higher than the overall unemployment rate.  In December of 2015, unemployment in the food services industry was 6.9 percent, above the national overall average of 4.9 percent.[19] 

 

Figure 2
Unemployment Higher Among Those With Less Education

 

While there have been few in-depth studies of those who are subject to the time limit, some evidence suggests that a sizable portion have a criminal history, which has a significant impact on job prospects.  A detailed study of childless adults who were referred to community-based workfare in Franklin County (Columbus), Ohio found that about one-third had a felony conviction.[20]  People with criminal records find it harder to be hired due to discrimination as well as low levels of education and poor work histories.[21]  In addition to the stigma of incarceration, a number of states prohibit people with criminal histories from working in certain occupations.  As a result, people with criminal backgrounds work less and have reduced earnings.  It is unrealistic to expect these individuals to find work in a depressed economic environment.

Racial and ethnic minorities facing the time limit may face discrimination that contributes to higher-than-average unemployment, regardless of their education level or criminal history.  Unemployment rates tend to be higher for African Americans, for example: in 2016, the rate for African American men over 20 years old was 8.2 percent compared to an overall rate for men over 20 of 4.5 percent.[22]  Racial discrimination likely plays a role: field studies have found that even holding qualifications equal, white job applicants are much more likely to receive callbacks after initial applications or interviews than African American applicants.[23]

Native Americans also face higher-than-average unemployment, in part because some live on Indian Reservations or in other remote, economically disadvantaged areas.  Historically, the Native American unemployment rate has significantly exceeded the white unemployment rate; more than twice as many Native Americans as whites were unemployed in 2016.[24]  (See Figure 3.)  As a result, states have repeatedly requested waivers for reservations where jobs can be extremely difficult to find (and some states only request waivers for reservation areas).

 

Figure 3
Native Americans Face High Unemployment

 

Implementing the Time Limit Does Not Increase Work Effort

There is no evidence that SNAP receipt discourages unemployed adults without children from seeking employment.  As noted above, many are likely receiving SNAP because they would like to work but face barriers to work.  Others may be getting SNAP while looking for work or because they can’t find a job with sufficient hours.  For this population who are not working at least 20 hours a week, SNAP provides less than $5 a day — it is hard to imagine that these individuals would forgo earnings in order to maintain eligibility for SNAP.  Indeed, if their income remained low enough, even with earnings (say from limited hours or a minimum wage job), a worker could continue to be eligible for SNAP.

Conclusion

When Congress enacted SNAP’s three-month time limit, it provided states with the ability to waive this harsh rule in areas with insufficient jobs or high unemployment.  States have understandably made use of this authority to protect vulnerable citizens, to ease the burden of administering this complicated rule, and to craft meaningful work requirements that are better suited for this population and their communities.  Waiver criteria have been consistently applied for the past 20 years, resulting in just over a third of the country being waived outside of the period when Congress intervened to expand waivers temporarily.  Critics of the waiver policy do not take into account the time limit’s harshness, how poorly the waiver criteria capture the barriers to work for many subject to the time limit, and how it allows states to impose more meaningful and fair work requirements.  Waivers from the time limit are a limited, albeit, important state flexibility to ease this unfair rule.

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End Notes

[1] For a more comprehensive discussion of the time limit rule, see:  Ed Bolen et al., “More Than 500,000 Adults Will Lose SNAP Benefits in 2016 as Waivers Expire,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, updated March 18, 2016, http://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/more-than-500000-adults-will-lose-snap-benefits-in-2016-as-waivers-expire.

[2] “FNS Controls Over SNAP Benefits for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents,” USDA Office of Inspector General, Audit Report 27601-0002-31, September 2016, https://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/27601-0002-31.pdf.

[3] Congressional Record, 104th Congress, Welfare and Medicaid Reform Act of 1996 (House of Representatives – July 18, 1996), page H7905, https://www.congress.gov/crec/1996/07/18/CREC-1996-07-18.pdf.

[4] U.S. Department of Labor, “Labor Surplus Area: Frequently Asked Questions,” updated August 21, 2015, https://www.doleta.gov/programs/lsa_faq.cfm.

[5] The EB program has criteria in law under which every state is eligible to receive benefits, and states can opt to offer EB benefits under additional criteria.  (For more information, see “Conformity Requirements for State UI Laws,” Department of Labor, https://workforcesecurity.doleta.gov/unemploy/pdf/uilaws_extended.pdf.)  Because any of these unemployment criteria (known as “triggers”) establish high unemployment, a state is eligible for a waiver if it meets the criteria under any of the triggers, even if the state does not provide EB benefits under that trigger.

[6] The employment-population ratio is the share of the non-institutional, civilian adult population (over age 16) that is employed.  The employment-population ratio provides useful information in assessing labor market conditions over the business cycle because it takes into account changes in labor market “slack” (insufficient jobs) due to changes in both unemployment and labor force participation.  For more information, see Sarah Donovan, “An Overview of the Employment-Population Ratio, Congressional Research Service, May 27, 2015, https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44055.pdf.

[7] U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — Guide to Supporting Requests to Waive the Time Limit for Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents (ABAWD),” December 2, 2016, https://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/snap/SNAP-Guide-to-Supporting-Requests-to-Waive-the-Time-Limit-for-ABAWDs.pdf.

[8] Chad Stone, “Congress Should Renew Emergency Unemployment Compensation Before the End of the Year,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, November 21, 2013, http://www.cbpp.org/research/congress-should-renew-emergency-unemployment-compensation-before-the-end-of-the-year.

[9] The unemployment rate threshold to qualify for the second tier of EUC was slightly lower than EB in recognition of the diminished prospects for job seekers during the weak labor market caused by the recession.

[10] USDA Memo, “SNAP- ABAWD Statewide Waivers – New Criteria for Unemployment Insurance Extended Benefits Trigger,” January 8, 2009, https://www.fns.usda.gov/sites/default/files/010809.pdf.  When all states were eligible for both the first and second tiers of EUC, USDA required states to be eligible for at least the third tier.  As with EB, states only needed to qualify for a waiver based on the unemployment criteria required to trigger onto these higher tiers. 

[11] U.S. Department of Labor, “Emergency Unemployment Compensation Expired on January 1, 2014,” updated July 1, 2015, http://ows.doleta.gov/unemploy/supp_act.asp.

[12] “SNAP Time Limits: Waivers from the Time Limit Are Back to Historic Norms,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, March 24, 2017, http://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/3-24-17fa1.pdf.

[13] “FNS Controls Over SNAP Benefits for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents,” USDA Office of Inspector General, Audit Report 27601-0002-31, September 2016, https://www.usda.gov/oig/webdocs/27601-0002-31.pdf.

[14] The State of American Jobs, Pew Research Center, October 2016, http://www.ledevoir.com/documents/pdf/etude_travail_pewresearch.pdf.

[15] U.S. Department of Agriculture, “Rural America at a Glance: 2016 Edition,” November 2016, https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/publications/eib162/eib-162.pdf?v=42684.

[16] Steven Carlson, Dorothy Rosenbaum, and Brynne Keith-Jennings, “Who Are the Low-Income Childless Adults Facing the Loss of SNAP in 2016?” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, February 8, 2016, http://www.cbpp.org/research/food-assistance/who-are-the-low-income-childless-adults-facing-the-loss-of-snap-in-2016.

[17] “Food Stamp Employment and Training Program,” United States General Accounting Office (GAO–3-388), March 2003, p. 17.

[18] Bureau of Labor Statistics.

[19] Industries at a Glance: Food Services and Drinking Places, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/iag/tgs/iag722.htm.

[20] Ohio Association of Food Banks, “Franklin County Comprehensive Report on Able-Bodies Adults Without Dependents, 2014-2015,” October 14, 2015, http://admin.ohiofoodbanks.org/uploads/news/ABAWD_Report_2014-2015-v3.pdf.

[21] Maurice Emsellem and Jason Ziedenberg, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, “Strategies for Full Employment Through Reform of the Criminal Justice System,” http://www.cbpp.org/research/full-employment/strategies-for-full-employment-through-reform-of-the-criminal-justice.

[22] Labor Force Statistics from the Current Population Survey, Bureau of Labor Statistics, https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat03.htm.

[23] Devah Pager and Bruce Western, “Identifying Discrimination at Work: the Use of Field Experiments,” Journal of Social Issues, Vol. 68, No. 2, 2012, pp. 221-237, http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/pager/files/identifying_discrimination_pager_western.pdf?m=1462807104.

[24] Algernon Austin, “High Unemployment Means Native Americans Are Still Waiting for an Economic Recovery,” Economic Policy Institute, December 17, 2013, http://www.epi.org/publication/high-unemployment-means-native-americans/.