Revised March 5, 1997

Who Will Lose Food Stamps Under the Three-Month Cut-Off?
by David Super


The new welfare law requires states to terminate food stamps after three months in any 36-month period to individuals between the ages of 18 and 50 who are not raising children unless those individuals are disabled, working at least 20 hours a week, or participating in certain kinds of employment and training programs. (Under certain limited conditions, an additional three-month period could later be provided.) This provision is primarily responsible for the legislation's large cuts in benefits for non-elderly adults who are not raising children. The new law imposes proscriptive rules as to what kinds of work programs states can operate for people reaching the time limits. For example, no matter how strenuously a recipient is looking for work, he or she would still be cut off upon reaching the time limit. Few slots in the employment and training programs that states currently operate would be considered sufficient to allow participants to continue receiving food stamps beyond the time limit. It is uncertain how many work slots meeting the new requirements states will choose to make available to this population; the new law does not require that people willing to work be given the opportunity to do so before their food stamps are terminated.

The Congressional Budget Office estimates that, when fully implemented, this provision will cut off food assistance in an average month to over half a million otherwise eligible poor people who would accept a work slot if it were offered to them in an average month. If states expand the number of work slots available to persons unable to find private employment and seek more waivers for areas with insufficient jobs than CBO anticipated, this estimate may prove high. If, however, states create few slots to allow these individuals to work off their benefits, the number of people denied food assistance is likely to be higher than anticipated.

A recent USDA study shows that the people who will be affected are quite poor:

This group includes large numbers of poor women and individuals over 40.

The group is racially diverse as well: 42 percent are white, 45 percent are Black, and 9 percent are Hispanic.

Many in this group have a strong attachment to workforce. Few remain on food stamps continually. But a majority take more than three months to find a job. Of those individuals aged 18 to 60 coming onto the program who are not elderly, disabled, or raising children who come onto the program:

More than 700,000 of the individuals who will now be subjected to the time limits have registered for food stamp work or training programs but have not been placed in such programs because their state has not provided a sufficient number of work or training slots.

These data suggest that the provision terminating benefits after three months to those who cannot find a private-sector job or a workfare slot is likely to cause substantial hardship to many extremely poor individuals who are between jobs, are willing to work, and are not permanent food stamp recipients. The data also suggest that, contrary to stereotypes, few of the people affected by the time limits are chronically unemployed young men who use food stamps for long periods. Many, however, face barriers to employment such as lack of education or job skills or physical or mental impairments that are significant but not disabling. Although most work despite these barriers, once one job ends these barriers render them sufficiently unattractive to employers that they often require more than three months to find new work.

End Note

1. Because older workers with limited skills face greater difficulties gaining employment, many of the longer-term recipients reported in the studies are likely to be between ages of 18 and 60 and not covered by the new time limits. Some of these longer-term recipients also are people with substantial physical or mental impairments whom the studies did not formally classify as "disabled"; they also are exempt from the time limits. Among those people who will now be subject to the time limits, long-term receipt of food stamps is likely to be even more unusual. But most of those that do leave the program need more than three months to find work.