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SNAP Responded as Designed to Increased Need

August 26, 2015 at 3:00 PM

A recent Heritage Foundation blog post overstates the share of SNAP (formerly food stamp) recipients who are working-age adults and misleadingly portrays SNAP’s temporary growth in response to the Great Recession and slow recovery as a problem.

People ages 18-64 make up just under half of SNAP recipients, not a majority as the Heritage post claims.  Moreover, most of those who can work do work:  more than half of SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult work while receiving SNAP.  Because many working families turn to SNAP temporarily after losing a job, the share who work within a year of receiving SNAP is even higher — more than 80 percent. 

While the share of SNAP participants who are working-age adults has risen somewhat since the start of the recession, from 45 percent in 2007 to 49 percent in 2013 (the most recent year for which we have data), that’s largely due to three factors that do not point to a problem with SNAP.

  • First, the share of people in poverty who are working-age adults has been climbing for several decades and continued rising through 2013.  As a result, since 2007 the number of SNAP-eligible adults ages 18-64 has grown faster than the number of SNAP-eligible children or elderly.
  • Second, not only did the number of eligible working-age adults grow substantially, but the share of eligible adults participating in SNAP also rose, from 67 percent in 2007 to 85 percent in 2012.  This likely reflects increased need related to the recession and its aftermath as well as state efforts to make SNAP more accessible to all eligible people.
  • Third, in recent years more parts of the country have qualified for waivers from a SNAP rule limiting non-disabled adults ages 18-50 without dependent children in the household to three months of SNAP every three years unless they work or are in work training at least 20 hours a week.  States can request waivers of this time limit in places with high unemployment, and most have qualified to waive the rule statewide during the recession and recovery.  But, because unemployment has come down, many areas will no longer qualify for these waivers, and an estimated 1 million of these working-age adults will likely lose SNAP in 2016.

Overall, SNAP enrollment grew significantly during the recession and remained high due to the lingering effects of the downturn.  That’s no surprise: SNAP is designed to expand and contract in response to changes in the number of people with incomes below or just above the poverty line.  As the economy has slowly begun recovering, SNAP participation has begun falling — by 2.3 million people since peaking at the end of 2012.  The Congressional Budget Office expects the decline to continue as the economy continues to recover and prospects improve for low-income workers. 


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