BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The Trump Administration is reportedly poised to propose a rule restricting states’ ability to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to childless adults living in high-unemployment areas who are struggling to find a steady job. Hundreds of thousands of unemployed SNAP participants could lose help putting food on the table as a result.
For many low-wage workers who can find only limited or unsteady work, SNAP provides help to buy food, supplementing their low wages or covering periods of unemployment. A 1997 rule limits SNAP benefits to just three months out of every 36 months for childless adults who aren’t working or in a training program for at least 20 hours a week, even if they’re working part time or diligently looking for work — but the law also lets states waive this harsh time limit temporarily in high-unemployment areas, and almost every state has done so at some point. With its new proposed rule, however, the Administration is now expected to severely limit this waiver option.
States’ important waiver flexibility has helped them weather local economic downturns, respond to disasters, and support residents who are doing their best in areas with few suitable jobs. Making waivers far harder to get would force states to impose the time limit even in areas with few jobs and no job training.
Childless adults participating in SNAP are very poor. Most have incomes below half of the poverty line, and many face significant challenges finding and keeping full-time work, such as undiagnosed medical conditions, limited education, or a criminal record.
Most non-disabled SNAP participants work, but many don’t consistently work the required 20 hours a week and they also face periods of joblessness. Many of the jobs for which they qualify provide low wages and unpredictable and insufficient hours, as well as high turnover rates. SNAP’s three-month time limit punishes these workers even when they’re doing their best to support themselves.
Restricting states’ ability to waive the time limit would especially harm workers who face disadvantages in the labor market, such as those who have less education, live in rural areas, or have undiagnosed or temporary disabilities. These groups are more susceptible to labor market shocks than other workers, often losing their jobs early during recessions and finding other jobs more slowly during recoveries.
Unemployment rates for less-educated workers tend to be high even when the economy overall is doing well: among people age 25 and older without a high school diploma or GED, unemployment averaged 6.5 percent in 2017 while unemployment overall for people age 25 and older averaged 3.6 percent. (As of 2018, the unemployment rate for these workers still hadn’t returned to its level in 2007, before the Great Recession.) Unemployment rates in many lower-skilled occupations, such as those in the service industries, are also much higher than unemployment overall. In December 2017, unemployment in the food services industry was 6.3 percent, above the national figure of 4.1 percent.
Restricting state waivers would also hurt many people of color, who often face discrimination and other deep-rooted factors that contribute to higher unemployment. To cite just one example, field studies find that white job applicants are much likelier to receive callbacks after initial applications or interviews than equally qualified African American applicants. Some 6.6 percent of African Americans over age 16 were unemployed on average in the third quarter of 2018, compared to 3.4 percent of whites over 16. African Americans are also likelier to have part-time work when they would like full-time work. Also, both African Americans and Latinos are likelier than whites to lose their jobs during recessions; even temporary unemployment due to business cycles can have lasting effects on workers’ earnings.
The Administration may promote the time limit using two seriously flawed reports claiming that after Kansas and Maine ended their waivers, work rates and wages among people subject to the time limit rose dramatically, leaving them better off. As we’ve explained, the reports didn’t take into account that many SNAP recipients subject to the time limit already work or would work soon even without the time limit. The reports also advance the theory that people avoid work and remain in poverty in order to qualify for modest SNAP benefits of only about $5 a day, ignoring the serious barriers to work that many SNAP recipients face, as noted above.
Taking essential benefits like food benefits away from those who are unemployed wouldn’t address the inequities in the labor market or the challenges that so many workers face. Instead of punishing struggling workers, policymakers should support them through ideas with bipartisan support, such as a higher minimum wage, a stronger Earned Income Tax Credit, and paid family leave.