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off the charts

Conaway’s SNAP Work Proposal Would Harm Many Workers

Update, April 18: we’ve updated this post to clarify the rules for regaining eligibility following a sanction.

Despite its stated goal of supporting work among SNAP (formerly food stamps) participants, the work proposal in House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway’s farm bill won’t likely increase work opportunities. As we’ve explained, states would receive funds that are wholly insufficient to run effective work programs, which are very costly, and they’d need to spend considerable resources to track the millions of people subject to the requirements. Not only would the proposal likely do little to help people who are out of work find high-quality jobs, it also would increase hardship for many workers.

The proposal would require SNAP participants ages 18 through 59 who aren’t disabled or raising a child under 6 to prove — every month — that they’re working at least 20 hours a week, participating at least 20 hours a week in a work program, or a combination of the two. Individuals who don’t meet these requirements within a month would lose benefits for one year the first time this happens, and for three years for any later occurrence. (Individuals could regain their eligibility by working at least half-time for a month or qualifying through an exemption, but they would need to know these rules and reapply.)

Many workers would likely lose benefits if they couldn’t provide the needed paperwork to show they were working, if their employer cut their hours below 20 hours per week, or if they were temporarily out of work — all realistic scenarios given the reality of low-wage work.

Many working SNAP participants have periods when they aren’t working at least half-time, and they could lose benefits during one of those periods — when they most need SNAP. Over the course of a year, about 49 percent of working SNAP participants had at least one month in which they participated in SNAP and didn’t work at least 80 hours, CBPP analysis of Census data from June 2012 to May 2013 finds. Even among those who worked about 20 hours per week on average over the year, over one-quarter didn’t meet those requirements in every month so would risk losing benefits. (See chart. To understand our methodology for calculating the impact of work requirements, see this CBPP analysis.)

The Conaway proposal assumes that workers can choose to work more hours when they want to but, in reality, low-wage jobs — particularly the jobs that SNAP participants typically have in industries such as food service and retail — often have hours that change from week to week, and employees often have little control over their schedules. Low wages, irregular scheduling, lack of paid sick leave and other benefits, and lack of supports such as affordable child care can cause many workers to move in and out of work. Many workers turn to SNAP when they’re between jobs, and others to supplement low wages. The Conaway proposal would eliminate this important feature of SNAP, which helps workers with volatile incomes and low wages put food on the table and keep working.

Monthly reporting requirements would also be burdensome for states and could cause workers who work the required number of hours to lose SNAP anyway, due to administrative glitches. States would need to track and verify participants’ work hours each month. While they might be able to do so through electronic data matching in many cases, some workers — those who are self-employed or have multiple jobs or varying hours, for example — might need to provide pay stubs or other documentation. Thus, the Conaway proposal would undo states’ considerable progress in streamlining SNAP operations and improving access for eligible workers.