Revised March 24, 2003

by Stacy Dean and Joseph Llobrera

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The 1996 welfare law restricted the food stamp eligibility of able-bodied food stamp recipients between the ages of 18 and 50 who do not have children. Under the law, these recipients generally are able to receive benefits for only three months while out of work in any 36-month period. In 1998, USDA released a report by Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., entitled "The Effect of Welfare Reform on Able-Bodied Food Stamp Recipients," which discusses the three-month time limit and the population it affects. The findings of this study should be helpful to states considering what policies to adopt with respect to these individuals, and in particular whether to request waivers for areas with insufficient jobs, to grant individual hardship exemptions, and to provide work slots. The report's key findings include:(1)

With such low incomes, many ABAWDs are likely to be struggling just to meet basic needs. An ERS study of food stamp participants in Iowa found that nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of ABAWDs received privately provided food assistance in the year prior to the study.(3) Over half (52 percent) of the ABAWDs in the study received help from a food pantry or a church to acquire food in the previous year. This assistance often was not enough to meet basic needs, however, and food insecurity was particularly severe for ABAWDs. Although the proportion of ABAWDs in the ERS study that were considered food insecure (53 percent) was similar to the food stamp population in general (55 percent), ABAWDs were more likely to experience food insecurity with hunger. Over two-fifths (41 percent) of ABAWDs were food insecure with hunger, compared to 28 percent for the food stamp population in general.

Overall, the Mathematica report provides evidence that many of the people subject to the time limit are disadvantaged and face significant barriers to employment.


I. Employment Prospects of 18-49s: Findings of Recent Studies

The Mathematica study reports that "the employment prospects of ABAWD FSP participants are likely to be greatly limited." Nearly 60 percent of the 18-49s live in central cities, and most have low educational attainment. Some 42 percent of 18-49s have not completed high school or attained a GED, while another 46 percent finished high school but have no further education. Many 18-49s also have limited work experience. The report states that "Research suggests that employment opportunities for persons with limited education and few skills are severely limited, even when economic conditions are strong."

Job opportunities tend to be limited for such individuals, the report explains, because of a series of changes in the labor market that have resulted in a surplus of very low-skilled individuals in many areas relative to the number of very low-skilled jobs available. The report's findings on these issues, which are based on a comprehensive review of the research literature as well as Mathematica's analysis of data on 18-49s, include the following:(4)

The leading research on this matter is a comprehensive survey and analysis of the employment prospects of less-educated workers in the United States by economist Harry Holzer. Holzer found that in the urban labor markets he examined, the number of less-educated workers seeking employment substantially exceeded the number of jobs available for them. He noted this results in a substantial amount of "queuing up" for the available jobs.

As the Mathematica report explains, "Holzer points out that the more disadvantaged, less-skilled job seekers — which many ABAWDs will be — are always at the back of the queue, and for this reason, jobs will not be available to them even when the economy is strong. He found there is more unemployment per [job] vacancy in the inner cities than in the suburbs, indicating even less job availability for city residents."

Using data on 28 local labor markets, Holzer also found that unemployment rates significantly exceed job vacancy rates throughout the business cycle. In related research, he reported that the shift of low-skill jobs in recent decades from the inner cities to the suburbs has created an acute imbalance between the location of many low-skilled black workers and the jobs available to them.

In short, Holzer's work finds that in an environment where the number of low-skilled job applicants exceeds the number of low-skilled jobs, employers are able to select those with the most skills and experience within the low-skill sector. This development has diminished the job prospects of very low-skill workers, especially in the inner cities.

Holzer's findings are consistent with those of Katherine Newman and Chauncy Lennon in their well-known study of fast food restaurants in Harlem. Newman and Chauncy found 14 applicants for every one job opening in these restaurants, further evidence of a substantial imbalance between the number of job seekers and the number of job vacancies in the inner city. They also found that 83 percent of the job seekers who did not initially obtain employment still had not found a job one year later.

In summarizing this research, the Mathematica report notes that "Together, these studies depict a situation in which ABAWDs — particularly the urban less-educated, minority individuals — will have limited job prospects because they will enter job markets in which there is a shortage of job vacancies for persons with their skills."

This situation of limited job prospects may be exacerbated by transportation barriers. The ERS study of food stamp participants in Iowa found that ABAWDs were less likely to own their own car than the food stamp population in general. Over half (54 percent) of the ABAWDs in the study did not own their own car, compared to 22 percent for the food stamp population in general. Particularly in rural areas where the availability of public transportation is limited, ABAWDs may face considerable difficulty conducting job searches or getting to the jobs they may already have. Of the ABAWDs that worked in the month prior to the ERS study, one-fifth had to use a combination of transportation modes to get to work (such as walking and using public transport), compared to 2 percent for the general food stamp population.

Viewing this body of research as a whole, the Mathematica report observes: "Implicit in PRWORA's work requirement is the assumption that there are enough employment opportunities for ABAWDs — that is, they can find work if they seek it....However, a relatively large body of research indicates that the labor market situation of the low-skilled has become considerably worse in recent decades and that their current employment prospects are limited. This suggests that even if ABAWDs are willing to work, they may be unable to do so because there are not enough jobs for low-skilled workers."

Mathematica's Summary of the Research Findings

In the Conclusions section of the chapter in the report on the employment prospects of 18-49s, Mathematica writes:

"From our review of the literature, we learn that:

  • Job prospects for ABAWDs do not look promising. Structural changes in the U.S. economy over the past few decades have adversely affected the employment prospects of low-skill workers as demand has shifted away from the industries, locations, and skill levels in which ABAWDs are concentrated. The most up-to-date research suggests that current prospects for less-educated job seekers are severely limited, especially for nonwhites and in urban areas, where most ABAWDs reside (Holzer 1996).
  • Of the jobs that are available to the less-educated, most can be found in the retail trade and service industries and tend to be white collar, especially clerical, jobs. This is particularly true in urban areas, where the vast majority of ABAWDs live. It is no longer true that the manufacturing and construction sectors are the dominant employers of low-skill workers.
  • Many ABAWDs will face a 'spatial mismatch' between the location of their residence and location of low-skill jobs. While over half of ABAWDs reside in inner cities, many large employers of low-skill workers have moved out of the cities to the suburbs. Hence, these individuals are geographically separated from many of the jobs that could have been available to them.
  • ABAWDs will also likely face a 'skills mismatch' between the skills employers require and the skills they possess. This will be particularly true for urban residents, since employment in the inner city has become increasingly concentrated in high-skill jobs. In addition, competition for the low-skill jobs that do remain in the cities has increased the skill requirements within the low-skill sector.
  • Jobs that are available to less-educated workers tend to require a range of cognitive and interactive skills. These include "hard" skills such as reading, writing, arithmetic, and computers, as well as "soft" skills such as communication and teamwork. Such skill requirements are particularly prevalent in white collar, clerical occupations, where much of the employment is available, albeit limited.
  • Job prospects will be worse for those who have few connections in the working world. This stems from the growing importance of informal networks and referrals in recruitment for low-skill jobs. ABAWDs who are members of families, neighborhoods, or communities in which few adults hold jobs will be at the greatest disadvantage.
  • The job prospects of ABAWDs will depend significantly on economic conditions prevailing in their local area and region. The tightness of the local labor market and the strength of demand, particularly in the industries with the most jobs for low-skill workers, will be an important factor in the probability of employment. In addition, the availability and quality of local institutions supporting employment will influence individuals' employment prospects."


II. Statistical Profile of the 18-49 Population (Based on 1996 Data)

The report bases its profile of the 18-49 population on data from the fiscal year 1996 food stamp quality control (QC) data set. The QC data set provides detailed information on households that receive food stamps. Since the report uses data from 1996, a period before the three-month cut-off provision was instituted, it is able to look at the characteristics of those who received food stamp benefits but who would have been subject to the three-month cut-off provision had it then been in effect.

Many 18-49s are female. Women made up 42 percent of the 18-49 population.

How the Incomes of 18-49s Compared to the Incomes
of All Adult Participants, FY 1996
By Household Unit


All Adult Participants

Unit has gross income below 50% of poverty line



Unit has no income



Average income of unit as percentage of poverty line

20% of
poverty line

58% of
poverty line

Unit has more than $100 in assets

By the individual recipient



Individual has any income



Average income of those with income

a month

a month

Source: Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., "The Effect of Welfare Reform on Able-Bodied Food Stamp Recipients."



The list below shows some of the studies the Mathematica report included in its literature review. The categories used here follow the categories Mathematica uses in the report's summary.

Job Availability
  Harry Holzer, What Employers Want: Job Prospects for Less Educated Workers, New York: The Russell Sage Foundation, 1996.
  Katherine Newman and Chauncy Lennon, "Finding Work in the Inner City: How Hard is it Now? How Hard will it be for AFDC Recipients?" in Russell Sage Foundation Working Paper # 76, October 1995.
Types of jobs available
  Gregory Acs and Sheldon Danziger, "Educational Attainment, Industrial Structure, and Male Earnings" in Journal of Human Resources, vol. 28, Summer 1993.
  John Bound and Harry Holzer, "Industrial Shifts, Skills Levels, and the Labor Market for White and Black Males" in The Review of Economics and Statistics, vol. 75, no. 3, August 1993.
  Holzer, ibid.
Spatial mismatch
  Holzer, ibid.
  Philip Moss and Chris Tilly, "Raised Hurdles for Black Men: Evidence from Interviews with Employers", Russell Sage Foundation, November 1995 (
  Newman and Lennon, ibid.
Skill requirements
  Holzer, ibid.
  Moss and Tilly, ibid.
  Philip Moss and Chris Tilly, "'Soft' Skills and Race: An Investigation of Black Men's Employment Problems," New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1995 (
  Newman and Lennon, ibid.
Recruitment and hiring
  Holzer, ibid.
  Moss and Tilly, "Raised Hurdles for Black Men: Evidence from Interviews with Employers", ibid.
  Newman and Lennon, ibid.
Local economic conditions
  Henry W. Herzog and Alan M. Schlottmann, "Worker Displacement and Job-Search: A Regional Analysis of Structural Impediments to Reemployment" in Journal of Regional Science, vol. 35, no.4, November 1995.
  Paul Osterman, "Gains from Growth? The Impact of Full Employment on Poverty in Boston" in The Urban Underclass, edited by C. Jencks and P. Peterson, Washington DC: The Brookings Institution, 1991.
  Hal Wolman, "Welfare to Work: The Need to Take Place Differences into Account", Technical Analysis Paper no. 45, 1996 (

End Notes:

1. The USDA report provides more detail than is presented here. Copies of the full report are available at
2. USDA and many states refer to this population as "able-bodied adults without dependents" or "ABAWDs."

3. H. Jensen, S. Garasky, C. Wessman, and S.M. Nusser, Iowa Leavers Survey: Final Report (July 2002).
The appendix to this paper provides references to a number of the principal studies from which these findings and conclusions were drawn.
5. The report found that the group of food stamp recipients who meet the 18-49 criteria in a particular month is more disadvantaged, on average, than the group described here, which includes individuals who met the 18-49 criteria at any point during a 13-month period at the beginning of the 1990s. This latter group includes a larger proportion of individuals who received food stamps, and met the 18-49 criteria, for only a short period of time.