BEYOND THE NUMBERS
Part 1 in this series showed that SNAP (food stamps) provides modest benefits to vulnerable people. Here, we explain that most SNAP recipients who can work do work, and that SNAP rules both encourage and reward work. About two-thirds of SNAP recipients aren’t expected to work, mostly because they are children, elderly, or disabled. But, among SNAP households with at least one working-age, non-disabled adult, 58 percent work while receiving SNAP — and 82 percent work in the year before or after receiving SNAP. The rates are even higher for families with children: 62 percent work while receiving SNAP and 87 percent work in the prior or subsequent year. (These figures are based on data from the mid-2000s, but preliminary analysis finds that they fell only modestly during the Great Recession.) The number of SNAP households with earnings has been rising for more than a decade, reaching 6.4 million in 2011 (see chart). The increase was especially pronounced during the recent deep recession, suggesting that many people have turned to SNAP because of under-employment — for example, when one wage earner in a two-parent family lost a job, when a worker’s hours were cut, or when a laid-off worker took a lower-paying job.
The high labor force participation among SNAP recipients is no accident: SNAP is designed to act both as a safety net for people who are elderly, disabled, or temporarily unemployed and to supplement the wages of low-income workers.
- SNAP’s benefit formula includes work incentives to ensure that households are financially better off if they get a job or raise their earnings. For example, SNAP rules deduct 20 percent of a household’s gross earnings before computing benefit amounts, which allows a household with a wage earner to qualify for higher benefits. Also, when a SNAP recipient increases her earnings, her SNAP benefits decline only modestly and gradually — by 24 to 36 cents for each additional dollar earned.
- Consequently, SNAP typically boosts low-wage workers’ incomes by 10 percent or more. For example, a three-person family whose breadwinner works 35 hours a week at $10 an hour qualifies for $276 a month in SNAP benefits, raising the family’s income by 20 percent. SNAP’s role in supplementing low wages is particularly important given the stagnant wages and shortage of jobs for workers with limited education and skills.