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Limiting SNAP Doesn’t Boost Employment

A Foundation for Government Accountability report recently cited in the media (see here and here), which calls on all states to impose a three-month limit on SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits for able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without dependents — no matter how high the unemployment rate is in their area — mischaracterizes the limit and its likely impact, especially in areas with very few jobs. 

Here’s the issue.  Federal law limits these individuals, some of the poorest in America, to three months of SNAP out of every three years unless they are working at least 20 hours a week, participating in a work training program at least 20 hours a week, or participating in workfare.  States can request a waiver of this time limit in areas of high unemployment, and most have done so since the late 1990s.

Most states waived the time limit statewide during the recession and slow recovery.  But these waivers are largely expiring as unemployment falls.  As we’ve noted, roughly 1 million people will lose this basic food assistance over the next year as statewide waivers expire.

The report describes the time limit as a “work requirement” and encourages states to implement it even in areas with documented high unemployment, suggesting that ending food assistance for poor individuals will boost employment.  But the report gets several key points wrong:

  • The time limit isn’t a real work requirement.  Work requirements in low-income programs require people to look for a job and accept any job offer, as well as any assignment to a workfare or job training program; those who refuse can lose their benefits.  SNAP has similar work requirements that apply to most able-bodied adults.  The time limit is different:  people lose benefits after three months even if they want to work and are looking for a job but haven’t found one (or are working fewer than 20 hours a week), and states don’t have to provide any job training slots — and many don’t.  
  • Restricting SNAP benefits doesn’t remove barriers to work or improve job opportunities.  The report says implementing the time limit would “increase labor force participation, spur economic growth, and move individuals out of dependency and into self-sufficiency.”  But no research suggests that cutting people off SNAP leads to them finding jobs, particularly in areas with high unemployment.  Many able-bodied SNAP participants aren’t working because they can’t find a job or enough job training, or because they face challenges that prevent them from getting or keeping a job, such as health issues or homelessness.
  • Non-disabled childless adults weren’t a major driver of SNAP caseload growth.  Contrary to the report’s claim that waiving the time limit led to “exploding food stamp enrollment,” childless adults accounted for only about 15 percent of the growth in SNAP participation between 2008 and 2013. 

    Nor has SNAP’s growth created a “crisis,” as the report claims.  The large jump in unemployment in the recession expanded the number of people with low incomes who qualified for SNAP, including childless nondisabled adults.  As the economy has started to improve, SNAP participation and spending have both begun falling, and the Congressional Budget Office projects that SNAP spending will continue to fall as a share of the economy.