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Behavioral Science Study: SNAP’s Three-Month Time Limit Flawed by Design

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SNAP’s harsh three-month limit on food assistance, which the Administration wants to make even harsher, reflects the idea that taking food away from jobless adults will lead them to work or earn more. But repeated studies, including a new report from the nonprofit consulting firm ideas42, conclude that work requirements in public assistance programs don’t work.

Time limits and work requirements don’t help people in public assistance programs find and keep jobs that lift them out of poverty, years of peer-reviewed studies show. One reason why: their fatal design flaws prevent them from achieving their purported goal, as the ideas42 report shows from the perspective of behavioral science, which focuses on how people make decisions in complex situations and based on imperfect information.

For over 20 years, SNAP benefits have been limited to three months in a three-year period for adults between 18 and 49 years old who can’t document that they work at least 20 hours a week, participate in a qualifying training activity, or are exempt due to poor health or another impediment to employment. The Administration recently proposed making that policy even harsher by prohibiting waivers of the time limit, which would cost 755,000 jobless adults who are not caring for children their SNAP benefits.

The ideas42 report points out three critical failings of work requirements, which help show why the time limit isn’t an effective way to boost employment. From a behavioral science perspective, the time limit:

  • Raises the costs of obtaining basic food assistance. Requiring people to prove each month that they worked 20 hours a week dramatically reduces SNAP participants’ ability to keep benefits. Lost paperwork, missed notices, and the very nature of much low-wage work means that many people subject to the time limit lose benefits despite their best efforts to comply.
  • Worsens the impact of chronic scarcity that adults subject to the time limit face. As the report notes, poverty is unforgiving and people have urgent pressures on their time, attention, and decision-making abilities. The rigid 20-hour requirement doesn’t reflect the real-life pressing circumstances that low-income unemployed adults face, and no longer reflects the low-wage labor market which has moved towards less stable jobs, variable schedules, and few supports that help individuals stay employed.
  • Reinforces a misguided belief that unemployed SNAP participants don’t want to work and must be forced to do so. Along with stigmatizing and disempowering people, that belief simply isn’t true, research shows. Most working-age adults on SNAP work either while on SNAP or just before or after turning to SNAP for temporary help in putting food on the table, but they’re likelier to have irregular or on-call work, or to cycle in and out of short-term jobs.

These findings mirror what we already know about SNAP’s time limit — that it takes food assistance away from many people who want to work but can’t find a job or need additional support to address barriers to employment.

The report suggests common-sense ways of supporting employment, such as investing in effective training programs that provide the kinds of supports that participants need; ensuring that vulnerable members of a family, including elderly relatives and children not in the SNAP household, receive the caregiving they need; and raising take-home pay.