BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Most Working-Age SNAP Participants Work But Job Instability Overstates Joblessness in Some Analyses
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps more than 40 million people put food on the table each month. SNAP has existing, harmful work-reporting requirements, but recent proposals from House Republicans would harm more SNAP participants — by taking food away from older adults who can’t show every month that they meet or are exempt from work-reporting requirements — without improving employment.
The existing and proposed work requirements base access to food assistance on documenting hours of work or work activity and on false assumptions, including that people who receive benefits do not work and must be compelled to do so. Under the existing and proposed rules, individuals can receive SNAP for only three months (in a 36-month period) if they don’t document that they meet a 20-hour-per-week work requirement. (The proposals would make more groups of people subject to the existing rule.) But three months may not be long enough for unemployed workers to find a new job with enough stable hours.
Some households turn to SNAP to supplement low pay, low or fluctuating hours, or for temporary help while between jobs, for both shorter and longer periods. Shorter periods could be due to a temporary illness or to care for an ill family member; households with people with disabilities or longer-term health challenges may need SNAP for longer periods.
Over half of individuals potentially subject to the current work-reporting requirements (those aged 18 to 49 who don’t live with minor children and who did not receive disability benefits) who were participating in SNAP in a typical month in 2015 were working in that month, based on longitudinal data (which tracks survey respondents over time) from the U.S. Census Bureau. (See figure.) Further, 74 percent worked in the year before or after that month (a 25-month period).
More recent data from Census, although not longitudinal, also show that most SNAP households work. Among households with adults aged 18 to 49 who don’t live with minor children and did not receive disability benefits who reported receiving SNAP in 2021, 83 percent had earnings, based on our analysis of 2021 American Community Survey data.
Frequent job turnover and fluctuating hours make it challenging to quantify the work experiences of SNAP participants. Looking at longitudinal Census data on SNAP participants’ work patterns and low-paid workers’ participation in SNAP over two years, it’s clear that workers paid low wages are frequently in and out of work and enroll in and leave SNAP as their earnings fall and rise.
The higher rate of work among SNAP participants (when measured over a longer period rather than a single month snapshot) demonstrates that joblessness is often temporary. Examining work status among participants at a given point in time (for example, the Department of Agriculture’s point-in-time estimates) substantially overstates their joblessness because these estimates do not capture SNAP participation patterns or work patterns over time (other reasons for discrepancies between data sources include who is sampled and how well earnings are captured).
A snapshot of work among SNAP participants in a single month of SNAP receipt undercounts workers. This is because many workers only participate in SNAP when they lose a job or their work hours are low or cut. So they are less likely to be working while receiving SNAP than they will be in the future and were in the past. Many workers participate in SNAP for part of the year, while they are between jobs or their earnings or hours are low, and stop participating when they are earning more.
Most SNAP participants who can work, do. Because most participants who can work for pay do, SNAP’s existing harsh work-reporting requirements don’t improve employment or earnings — as several rigorous studies have shown — they only cut people off from the food assistance they need.