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Time’s Up for SNAP’s Time Limit

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A recent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) report adds to the growing evidence that cutting people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) if they can’t find at least 20 hours of work a week doesn’t lead to them finding a job. By taking SNAP away, the time limit leaves people with fewer resources to buy food and puts them at risk of food insecurity, according to USDA, the federal agency that administers SNAP.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted weaknesses in our nation’s supports for low- and moderate-income individuals and families. Hardship in the United States remains well above pre-pandemic levels, and the economy has changed in significant and possibly permanent ways, especially for low-wage workers.

Rather than returning to the way things were, this can be an opportunity to make needed adjustments and improvements to government policies for low-income households. One policy ripe for reconsideration is SNAP’s time limit for un- and underemployed workers who are not living with a child.   

SNAP’s role as the nation’s primary anti-hunger safety net has long had a gaping hole. Non-elderly adults without children in their homes can receive benefits for only three months every three years, unless they are working at least 20 hours a week or can document they are unable to work. Most states offer little to no help in meeting the 20-hour requirement, so the rule is actually a time limit on benefit receipt, cutting off all individuals who are unable to find enough hours of work. States can temporarily waive the time limit in areas where there are insufficient jobs. Due to the pandemic, the time limit is temporarily suspended nationwide.

USDA’s study, completed by the Urban Institute, further undermines arguments that time limits effectively encourage employment. The study considered the time limit’s pre-pandemic implementation in nine states (Alabama, Colorado, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Vermont), with a review of employment impacts in three states (Colorado, Missouri, and Pennsylvania). The study’s main analysis compared outcomes for individuals who were subject to reinstated time limits with outcomes for individuals in the program a year earlier without time limits.  (There were statistical controls for differences across the periods and groups.) Several important findings emerged from the study:

  • All states in the study showed a sudden drop in SNAP participation after the third and final month of benefits allowed under the rule among the group subject to the time limit. Participation among other participants did not show a similar decline. 
  • In the primary analysis of employment impacts, no state had improved employment outcomes one year after the time limit was reinstated. In fact, in all three states, the time limit had significant negative impacts on employment. In a secondary analysis, there was no impact on employment in two states and a slight positive impact in a third state. In all three states, the net effect of time limits was to substantially reduce the annual resources (SNAP plus earnings) available to individuals — from $617 in Pennsylvania to as much as $1,432 in Colorado.
  • The time limit keeps unemployed adults without children from accessing SNAP. Participation had dropped between 7 percentage points (in Colorado) and 32 percentage points (in Vermont) one year after the time limit was imposed.
  • While all states showed a decline in participation, participation in six states (Alabama, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Tennessee, and Vermont) dropped by over 50 percent within a year of implementing the time limit.
  • Ultimately, the time limit reduces participation in SNAP among this group regardless of whether they have earnings. 

Other research backs these findings. A recent paper showed that SNAP’s time limit reduced participation in the program by 53 percent among those subject to the time limit, again with no effects on employment. Earlier research found more than one-third of able-bodied adults without dependents lost benefits and that losing SNAP eligibility did not increase employment but did increase the incidence of sick days.

Studies also confirm that individuals potentially subject to the time limit are more likely to be disconnected from the workforce and have higher rates of homelessness and mental or physical conditions that can impact their ability to work. SNAP participants who can find work typically work in low-wage jobs such as food service, retail sales, and home health care — all industries that were hard hit during the pandemic. These jobs often provide no sick leave and have unstable and unpredictable hours. As a result, many SNAP participants face periods of joblessness. Those facing barriers to work and a three-month limit to benefits need support while looking for work, not an arbitrary cut-off.

The majority of jobs lost in the crisis were in industries that pay low wages, with the lowest-paying industries accounting for 30 percent of all jobs but 53 percent of jobs lost from February 2020 to June 2021, according to the latest month of Labor Department employment data. As the economic recovery continues, unemployed workers in disrupted industries need the kind of temporary support that SNAP provides. 

Because of the loss of SNAP benefits without increasing employment or earnings, the time limit ends up increasing poverty and food insecurity. Policymakers need to craft recovery legislation that supports a more equitable recovery for low-income households that have been left behind. Part of that recovery should follow the recent call from the American Medical Association to end SNAP’s time limit, which fails to increase employment but does increase hardship and poverty.