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Speaker McCarthy’s SNAP Proposal Would Take Food Away From Older Adults for Not Meeting Work Requirements

House Speaker McCarthy’s debt-limit-and-cuts bill unveiled last week would expand SNAP’s already harsh policy that takes food assistance away from many people aged 18-49 who don’t have children at home and can’t secure an exemption. Such individuals can receive SNAP for only three months (in a 36-month period) if they don’t document that they meet a 20-hour-per-week work requirement. Speaker McCarthy’s bill would expand that policy to include people aged 50 through 55. About 1 million such individuals participate in SNAP and meet those criteria in a typical month. (The figure was 900,000 in 2019, the most recent year for which a full year of data are available. A larger number participate in SNAP over the course of a year.) See table below for state figures.

Not everyone newly subject to the requirement would lose benefits under the proposal. Some would live in areas under a waiver from the requirement based on insufficient jobs in their communities. Typically during past non-recessionary periods, about a third of the U.S. population has lived in areas that qualify for waivers in states that seek the waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, many people would be working more than 20 hours a week and would be able to navigate the work verification system, or they would be successfully exempted by their state because of a physical or mental disability or another qualifying exemption.

But a very significant number would likely lose benefits under the proposal because they are out of work or they are working insufficient hours, the state failed to screen them for an exemption they should have qualified for, or they were unable to navigate the verification system to prove they are working.

And people aged 50-55 are more likely to face age-based discrimination in the labor market or no longer be able to do the same jobs they held when they were younger because they can no longer meet the physical demands those jobs require. They may have health issues or family caregiving needs that can cause periods of joblessness but that caseworkers may not catch as reason for exemption.

The rationale for these requirements ― that access to basic food assistance should be conditioned on an individual’s documenting hours of work or work activity ― is based on several false assumptions. The first is the notion that people who receive benefits do not work and must be compelled to do so. Most SNAP participants who can work for pay, do.

Claims to the contrary are often rooted in prejudices about people based on race, gender, disability status, and class. A core function of SNAP is to support people during periods of unemployment, and three months (every three years) is not a sufficient period for many people to find new jobs.

Moreover, numerous studies have found that SNAP work requirements like these don’t improve employment or earnings, they just cut people off from the food assistance they need to buy groceries.

The McCarthy bill also restricts states’ ability to maintain eligibility for a limited number of individuals who have used their three months of benefits. Recognizing the harshness of the time limit and its inability to adjust for unexpected or unique circumstances, Congress allowed states to exempt a small percentage (about 12 percent) of people subject to the time limit. States can use these discretionary exemptions in cases when, for example, someone faces a sudden hardship like car trouble or has recently been released from prison or treatment for substance use disorder. States are issued these exemptions each year based on their caseload, and those that aren’t used can be rolled over to subsequent years.

The McCarthy bill would eliminate the ability to carry over unused exemptions. This would further hamstring a state’s ability to respond to individuals’ specific needs, or to unique labor market challenges such as a manufacturing plant closure.

SNAP Recipients in Each State Aged 50-55 Whose SNAP Benefits Could Be at Risk Under Speaker McCarthy’s Proposal
Figures are for an average month in fiscal year 2019. They include individuals who do not receive disability benefits and have no children in the SNAP household. Not all of these individuals would lose SNAP. Some could document that they qualify for exemptions or are working 20 hours or more per week. Others could live in areas with waivers based on insufficient jobs.
StateTotal number of SNAP participants aged 50-55 at risk of losing SNAP
District of Columbia5,000
New Hampshire1,000
New Jersey11,000
New Mexico15,000
New York54,000
North Carolina24,000
North Dakota1,000
Rhode Island3,000
South Carolina11,000
South Dakota2,000
Virgin Islands1,000
West Virginia9,000
U.S. Total900,000

Note: Figures assume policy included in the Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023, released by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on April 19, 2023, We have not included estimates for the provision that limits state flexibility on individual exemptions. 

Source: CBPP analysis of SNAP Household Characteristics data for Fiscal Year 2019 


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