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A More Complete Look at SNAP and Work

Some supporters of the House Agriculture Committee farm bill’s proposal to take food assistance away from people who don’t work a set number of hours per month have pointed to statistics that, while often accurate, understate the number of SNAP participants who work because they omit workers who are temporarily unemployed. Our analysis, which accounts for the temporarily unemployed, shows that most adults participating in SNAP who can work do work, and most of those who don’t work can’t easily work because they’re caring for family members or have significant health issues.

  • In a typical month of 2016, roughly 15.2 million adults participated in SNAP who are aged 18-59 and don’t meet the strict criteria to receive federal disability benefits. About 5.7 million of them had earnings that month and 9.5 million didn’t, according to Agriculture Department (USDA) data.
  • We estimate that 4.5 million of those without earnings worked in the year before or the year after the month examined. When added to the 5.7 million figure above, this means 10.2 million of SNAP’s 15.2 million adult participants were either working or temporarily unemployed.
  • Of the remaining 5 million, over a third couldn’t work due to caregiving responsibilities (most of whom had working spouses), nearly a quarter had a disability or chronic health condition that limited their ability to work, and close to a third were going to school or couldn’t find work.

Our analysis combines USDA data with data from the Census Bureau’s Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP), a large-scale, national survey conducted over a multi-year period. We used SIPP because it’s the best, latest available source for a nationally representative sample of program participants over time.

The facts above help explain why policies that condition access to public benefits on work haven’t had much success in increasing work and reducing poverty, despite claims to the contrary. Some people work after losing benefits, but many of them would have worked anyway, and the loss of benefits creates added hardship for them while they look for a job. And people who don’t work after losing benefits — often because they still face barriers to work — are worse off.

The House bill would require most adult SNAP participants, including parents with no children under age 6, to prove every month that they worked or participated in a work program for at least 20 hours a week or qualified for an exemption. Its added funding for job training pales in comparison to the amount states would need to provide effective training for the millions of people who would need it to retain benefits.

Increasing economic security for SNAP participants is an important goal, but this proposal isn’t the way to do it. Policymakers should instead look to evidence-based policies that have been proven to help improve economic prospects for low-income workers, such as combining education, training, and support services and investing in work supports and benefits that boost wages and make jobs more stable.