BEYOND THE NUMBERS
A Trump Administration rule that would have cut nearly 700,000 unemployed adults off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is finally dead, as the Agriculture Department (USDA) recently announced it would withdraw the Trump Administration’s appeal of a federal court decision blocking the rule. That’s great news. Policymakers can take another important step to help unemployed adults by eliminating the underlying SNAP eligibility limit affecting these workers.
That underlying limit restricts many non-elderly SNAP participants without kids in their home to three months of benefits out of every three years if they can’t find 20 hours of work or work training per week. The three-month cutoff penalizes workers for deep flaws in the labor market that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and greatly worsened. The limit includes a safety valve for areas where there simply aren’t enough jobs for this population: states can request waivers of the three-month cutoff so people looking for stable work can continue to eat. Virtually every state has used this flexibility at some point. The Trump Administration’s rule would have drastically reduced states’ ability to get a waiver, making it much harder for them to respond to high unemployment — including economic shocks like the one caused by the pandemic.
The March 2020 Families First law suspended the three-month cutoff during the COVID public health emergency in recognition of the pandemic’s impact on the labor market and unemployed workers’ need for food assistance. But once the public health emergency ends, the cutoff will return. States will be able to waive the limit in places with high unemployment, but it will once again deny benefits to many low-income adults who can’t find a stable job.
Even in normal times, workers of color and those with less education have higher unemployment due to deep-rooted structural factors, putting them at higher risk of losing SNAP when the time limit is in effect. Black and Latino workers were more likely prior to the pandemic to work in low-paid industries, which have accounted for more than half of the jobs lost during the pandemic (from February 2020 to February 2021). Similarly, people without a college degree have seen jobs return far more slowly than people with a college degree. And, the recovery for low-wage workers has a long way to go; between February 2020 and January 2021, the number of long-term unemployed (with spells of 27 weeks or more) jumped from 1.1 million to 4.0 million — or almost 2 in 5 unemployed workers.
Taking away food benefits doesn’t make it easier for anyone to find a stable job; it just makes people hungrier. Multiple studies make clear that the time limit cuts people off SNAP but doesn’t increase employment. Eliminating it is one of many steps that would make for a stronger, more equitable recovery.