Senior Research Analyst
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:
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.