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Setting the Record Straight on SNAP, Part 2: The Truth About Unemployed Childless Adults

House Republican leaders would have Americans believe that large numbers of young men have chosen to try to live on SNAP benefits alone (which average under $1.40 per person per meal across all SNAP recipients, as the first post in this series noted) in order to avoid work and go surfing.  Nonsense.

The unemployed childless adults who receive SNAP — one group targeted by the emerging House Republican plan to cut several million people from the program — look quite different from this caricature, as this infographic shows.  (

for a full-sized version.) Our recent paper on this part of the Republican plan has more details on this population:

[They] are extremely poor, and many are destitute.  While on SNAP, their monthly gross incomes average only 22 percent of the poverty line, or $2,500 when measured on an annual basis in 2013.  Their SNAP benefits will average just $160 per person per month in 2014.

Demographically, the group is diverse.  More than 40 percent are women.  One-third (34 percent) are over age 40.  Some 37 percent of the women who would lose benefits are over age 40.

Among those who report their race, about half are white (not Hispanic), a third are African American (not Hispanic), one in ten is Hispanic, and about 5 percent are Native American.

Close to a third have less than a high school degree.  Half have a high school diploma or GED, and just one in five has some college education.

Among the 83 percent for whom metropolitan status is available in the Census data, about 40 percent lived in urban areas, another 40 percent lived in suburban areas, and 20 percent lived in rural areas. . . .

Most of these childless adults are ineligible for any other federal income assistance — or, in most states, for any state or local cash assistance, no matter how poor they are.

The 1996 welfare law, which limits unemployed childless adults to three months of SNAP benefits out of every three years, also allows states to request temporary waivers from the three-month limit when unemployment is high and jobs are scarce.  Most states got these waivers during the recent recession and its aftermath, under standards that have been in place for over 15 years. The three-month limit will gradually come back into effect as the economy continues to improve (there still are about three unemployed workers for every available position) and many fewer areas qualify for waivers.  As a result, this vulnerable group will lose food assistance even under current law.  But that’s not fast enough for House Republican leaders, who propose restoring the three-month rule immediately across the country and prohibiting further waivers, regardless of how deep future recessions are and whether jobs are available. Next up:  SNAP’s strong record of efficiency.

Stacy Dean

Vice President for Food Assistance Policy