BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the nation’s largest anti-hunger program, helps more than 40 million people put food on the table each month. While two-thirds of participants aren’t expected to work because they are children, adults over age 60, or people with disabilities, SNAP plays an important role in supplementing workers’ low or fluctuating wages or helping them during periods of unemployment, as our recent report explains.
Here’s four ways how:
Many workers and their families participate in SNAP while they are working or are looking for work. SNAP provides assistance during short bouts of unemployment and income loss, but it also helps those with persistently low earnings, including those who have long-term barriers to employment and may need assistance in affording groceries over longer periods of time.
Adults who participate in SNAP often work in jobs with low pay or unstable hours that cause income volatility, such as important frontline service or sales roles like cashiers, cooks, or home health aides. Many of these jobs often lack benefits such as paid family leave — or even paid sick days — which means that a worker’s own illness or an illness in the family can lead to job loss.
Many working-age adults participate in SNAP for part of the year and stop participating when they are paid more. Three-quarters of workers with low incomes who were eligible for SNAP at some time during the year were eligible for only part of the year, an Agriculture Department (USDA) study found.
Most SNAP participants who can work do so. Over half of working-age, non-disabled people who participated in SNAP in a typical month in 2015 were working in that month, based on U.S. Census Bureau data. Further, 74 percent worked in the 12 months before or after that month.
Rates were even higher when including work among other household members: 89 percent of households with children and a working-age, non-disabled adult included at least one member who worked in this 25-month period. Many SNAP participants who didn’t work over that period reported caregiving responsibilities or faced barriers to work, including an injury or health condition.
More recent annual Census data also show that most SNAP households who are able to work do work. Among households with working-age adults who didn’t live with minor children, did not receive disability benefits, and reported receiving SNAP at some point in 2021, 86 percent had earnings during the year, based on our analysis of 2021 American Community Survey data.
Most Working-Age SNAP Participants Work, but Instability Overstates Joblessness
Work status of 100 simulated SNAP participants
In a typical month of SNAP participation, about half of non-disabled adults under 60 are working.
But many SNAP participants move in and out of work frequently.
Most will have worked at some point over the course of a year.
Has not worked
Note: Individual dots are for illustrative purposes and do not correspond to real survey participants.Center on Budget and Policy Priorities | cbpp.org
SNAP’s structure supports workers in a volatile labor market. SNAP benefits phase out slowly as earnings rise and include a 20 percent deduction for earned income to reflect the cost of work-related expenses and to further assist workers. As a result, SNAP benefits fall by only 24 to 36 cents for each additional dollar of earnings for most households.
SNAP provides crucial support for unemployed workers because they can apply when their incomes drop and receive benefits quickly and on a monthly basis, unlike some other programs that have waiting lists or provide benefits annually. Benefits are quite modest. If a household has no income, benefits average only about $8-$9 per person per day.
Work-reporting requirements in SNAP harm participants without improving employment outcomes. The program includes an ineffective policy that takes away food assistance from certain adults aged 18 through 54 who don’t have minor children in the home, don’t receive disability benefits, and can’t meet a 20-hour-a-week work-reporting requirement. These individuals lose their food assistance benefits after three months if they cannot show that they are working or engaged in a qualifying work program for 20 hours or more a week or secure an exemption. Numerous studies have shown that this harsh policy does not increase employment or earnings — it just cuts people off from the food assistance they need to buy groceries.
The recent debt ceiling agreement expands the SNAP work-reporting requirements to older adults aged 50-54, while exempting veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and former foster youth from the policy. Proposals from some House Republicans would make these already harsh work requirements even stricter, putting even more people — including children — at risk of losing at least some of their food benefits. Policymakers should recognize how SNAP serves workers and their families and reject proposals to make work requirements stricter. Indeed, given the strong evidence that the policy is a failure, policymakers should seek to eliminate it.
As Congress prepares to reauthorize SNAP in the pending farm bill, policymakers should preserve the program’s vital role for workers and their families and reject proposals that would weaken SNAP benefits.