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off the charts

SNAP Helps Workers Supplement Low Wages and Helps Them Between Jobs

As policymakers write the next Farm Bill, which authorizes SNAP (formerly known as food stamps), some have expressed interest in increasing work among participants. But as our new paper explains, the evidence shows that most SNAP participants are working when they can, and SNAP helps both workers with consistently low wages and those who are in and out of work.

  • While many non-disabled adult participants work in a typical month when they participate in SNAP, even more work within the year before or after that month. Over half of the people participating in SNAP in a typical month in mid-2012 worked in that month, but nearly three-quarters of them worked in the year before or after (all of which reflects the most recent data available that can best be used to measure work and SNAP participation over time). Work rates rose when counting work among other household members, suggesting that people within a household often share work and caregiving responsibilities. (See chart.) Among those who worked, most worked full time.
  • Workers are likelier to participate in SNAP when they lose a job or their income is low, which helps explain why many aren’t working in a typical month when they participate in SNAP. People who participated in SNAP at any point from 2009 through 2013 worked most months over this period, but they were likelier to participate when they were out of work. They participated in SNAP in over two-fifths of the months that they were working (44 percent) but in 62 percent of the months in which they were not working, when their income was lower and they needed more help affording food.
  • Most non-disabled adults receive SNAP on a short-term or medium-term basis, but even those who participate for longer periods work when they can. Nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of the adults who participated in SNAP at some point over the roughly 3.5-year period that we examined received it for a total of less than two years. But regardless of how long these adults participated in SNAP, they worked most months in which they received SNAP.
  • Many workers who turn to SNAP likely experience periods when they are out of work due at least in part to the nature of their jobs. Many low-paying jobs have features that contribute to workers cycling in and out of jobs, such as low wages, irregular schedules, and a lack of key benefits such as paid sick leave. SNAP participants disproportionately work in these jobs. Their lack of access to support including affordable child care and stable housing may also contribute to employment instability.
  • Participants who didn’t work over the 25-month period we studied generally had caregiving responsibilities or health conditions that limited their ability to work.

For the small share of participants who are consistently out of work, results from other programs show that work requirements rarely lead to significant increases in meaningful employment, and often result in increased poverty for those who lose benefits without increasing earnings. The most successful interventions offer intensive assessment and training services, which are extremely expensive, and are provided for voluntary participants.

Moreover, SNAP already has work requirements, and its structure further incentivizes work among participants. New, harsher rules around work won’t boost work rates for people who use SNAP, but will make it harder for them to put food on the table.