Maine cut several thousand people off SNAP (food stamps) this month after re-imposing a time limit on benefits for childless adults who aren’t working at least 20 hours per week — regardless of how hard they’re looking for a job. The move foreshadows tough times for very poor unemployed workers across the country who can’t find work as the time limit returns in more areas. Up to 1 million low-income unemployed adults risk losing SNAP benefits over the course of 2016.
The 1996 welfare law, which established the three-month limit, allowed states to waive it temporarily in areas with high unemployment. Most governors have used this flexibility in recent years to suspend the time limit in response to the severe impact of the recession. As the economy recovers and unemployment falls, though, more people will face the time limit.
Maine Governor Paul LePage chose to re-impose the time limit even though Maine’s unemployment was high enough to continue waiving it. Some areas, like Piscataquis County, still struggle with unemployment rates over 8 percent.
The loss of SNAP benefits can have a serious impact. People subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of about 19 percent of the poverty line (about $2,200 per year for a household of one in 2014) and typically don’t qualify for other income support.
The time limit is especially harsh because state and local agencies don’t need to help the affected people find jobs or provide a place in a job training program that would allow them to keep benefits.
Unfortunately, the President’s 2016 budget doesn’t propose modifying the time limit to make it fairer, such as by requiring state SNAP agencies or local workforce programs to offer a work or training slot to people facing the loss of food benefits. The budget boosts SNAP job training funds by $25 million per year, but that’s only enough, at best, to provide a place for one in ten people at risk of losing assistance.
Congress still has time to address this problem by reconsidering the harsh time limit and establishing a more reasonable work requirement.