Revised: March 24, 1997

Overview of the Food Stamp Time Limits For People Between Ages 18 and 50
by David Super


The new welfare law includes a harsh provision that severely restricts the availability of food stamps for many unemployed individuals. This provision limits the provision of food stamps for people between the ages 18 and 50 who are not disabled or raising minor children to three months while unemployed out of each three-year period. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates that when fully implemented, this provision will terminate food stamps for over half a million poor jobless individuals who are willing to work but cannot find a job. The effect will be to increase hardship among many people who have been working but have lost their jobs due to a recession, plant closing, company downsizing, or other reasons and cannot find employment in a few months.

This provision marks the first time in the history of the food stamp program that individuals will be cut off from the program because no work opportunity is available to them, not because they have refused to work. This provision was one of those to which President Clinton objected when signing the welfare bill. In his signing statement, Clinton stated that this provision "fails to provide food stamp support to childless adults who want to work, but cannot find a job or are not given the opportunity to participate in a work program."


How does the provision work and when does it take effect?

This provision limits food stamps for most jobless adults who are not disabled or raising minor children to three months out of a 36-month period. Only those who are working or participating in a work or training program at least half time or participating in a food stamp workfare program can continue to receive benefits after the end of the three-month period. In addition, the provision strictly limits the kind of work programs that states can establish for food stamp recipients reaching the time limits. Programs that require recipients to look for work, or those that help recipients improve their job search skills, do not count regardless of how rigorous they may be. Individuals looking for work will be cut off food stamps at the end of three months.

Few areas in the country have work, training, or workfare programs of any size for these food stamp recipients. Furthermore, the new law provides no new funding for the establishment or expansion of such programs. Most recipients who want to work but cannot find a job in the private sector and who are willing to comply with all work requirements will be out of luck. (Most areas do operate food stamp job search programs, but as noted, participation in these programs does not exempt an individual from the three-month food stamp cut-off.)

Jobless individuals who exhaust their three months of food stamps and later find employment but still are poor would continue to be denied benefits until after they have worked a full month. In certain limited circumstances, individuals who have exhausted their first three months of benefits, gone back to work and then been laid off again could receive up to three additional months of benefits. CBO estimates, however, that only about five percent of the individuals affected will receive any of these additional three months of benefits. For those who do get these additional benefits, food stamp benefits will be limited to a maximum of six months while out of work in any 36-month period.

The three-month "clock" established by the law began to run in most states at the end of November. For all practical purposes, that means that most states will begin to terminate food stamp recipients at the beginning of March unless they are working in a work or job training program at least half-time or are participating in a food stamp workfare program. No hardship exemptions are allowed.


Who is affected by this provision?

Most of those who will be affected are very poor. Many have no income other than food stamps and qualify for no other benefits because they are not raising minor children; food stamps is the only safety net they have. USDA data show that the average income of those affected by this provision who are not currently employed is just 28 percent of the poverty line.

The data also show that more than 40 percent of this group are women. In addition, one-third are over the age of 40, an age above which individuals with limited skills often have difficulty finding jobs quickly. Some are Vietnam veterans.

Many of those affected have a strong attachment to the workforce but can secure only short-term jobs and endure stretches of joblessness because of their low levels of education and skills. Only a small proportion of this group remains on food stamps continuously.


Won't those affected find jobs?

Recent research indicates that poor individuals with limited skills face substantial difficulties in finding low-wage employment, especially in the cities. One study conducted by Katherine Newman, now at Harvard University, examined all applicants for fast-food jobs in Harlem over a five-month period. She found there were 14 applicants for every person hired. She also found that 73 percent of the unsuccessful applicants were still out of work one year later despite the fact that most had repeatedly applied for jobs. Another study, by Harry Holzer of Michigan State University, found that workers who have limited education and are lacking in labor market skills experience substantial periods of unemployment and have difficulties finding jobs even when the economy is strong. Unemployed workers in some poor rural areas also confront limited employment opportunities.


Can the food stamp cut-off be waived?

The new law does not allow states to grant hardship exemptions to the three-month food stamp cut-off. The provision can, however, be waived in certain circumstances upon the request of a state. States can secure a waiver exempting a local area from the cut-off provision if the area unemployment rate exceeds 10 percent. Few areas of the country, however, have that high a level of joblessness. States also may apply for a waiver from USDA for individuals who live in an area that "does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for such individuals." About half of the states have requested waivers for cities and counties classified by the U.S. Department of Labor as "labor surplus areas" (i.e., areas in which there are many more people seeking work than there are jobs available for such people). Labor surplus areas are cities, counties, and towns in which the local unemployment rate has exceeded the national unemployment rate by at least 20 percent for the past two years.

The great majority of the people affected by the time limits, however, live outside areas for which waivers have been requested. CBO assumes that waivers will cover an average of 20 percent of those reaching the time limits this year. When fully implemented, CBO estimates that this provision will deny assistance to close to half a million otherwise eligible low-income people in an average month.


Can't a recipient just work off his or her food stamps and remain eligible?

No. Although the sponsors of this provision believed that most states had workfare programs in which recipients could work off their benefits, this is not the case. In 1995, only ten states operated food stamp workfare programs. Most of these were quite small and operated in only a handful of counties. The new law does not require states to start workfare programs or require those states that have such programs to offer slots to people facing termination under the time limits. CBO's survey of states found that most were not inclined to create significant numbers of workfare programs for people facing these time limits. As a result, CBO estimates that only about 80,000 people will be given the chance to work in exchange for continued assistance. This means that roughly half a million people each month will be denied benefits without having the chance to work.


If a state requests and receives a waiver from this cutoff, does that eliminate all work requirements for these food stamp recipients?

No. A waiver simply protects individuals who cannot find a job in three months from losing their food stamps. All regular food stamp work requirements continue to apply. These individuals are still required to register for work and to meet all work requirements their state imposes. Their state can require mandatory job searches, attendance at job readiness courses, and other activities. Individuals can be required to take jobs that are offered. Those who fail to comply with these work requirements are subject to sanctions. In fact, these sanctions have been made stiffer under the new welfare law. Thus, the principal difference between areas that are covered by waivers and those not covered will be that in areas with waivers, poor individuals who meet the work requirements will not be terminated from food stamp assistance simply because they can not find a job and no job training or workfare slot is available.


If a state secures a waiver, will that mean that women on welfare are subject to a time limit while 18-50 year old men are exempt from a time limit?

No. Under the new welfare law, families with children are subject to a maximum five-year time limit on receipt of cash assistance, with the state having the option to exempt up to 20 percent of such families from the time limit. There is no time limit on their eligibility for food stamps or Medicaid. By contrast, non-disabled individuals aged 18 to 50 who are not raising minor children are eligible for no federal cash assistance whatsoever; in most jurisdictions, they can receive no state or local cash assistance either or can receive only a few months of aid. They also are generally ineligible for Medicaid. If their state secures a waiver exempting them from the three-month food stamp cut-off, their safety net still will be vastly weaker than that provided to poor families with children. If their state does not secure a waiver, they generally will have little or no safety net at all.

Finally, it should be remembered that over 40 percent of those subject to the food stamp cut-off provision are women, some of whom have refrained from having children until they marry or otherwise better their economic circumstances.