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It’s Your Money: SNAP and the work requirement myth


NEWS: The debt ceiling deal increases work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

WHAT IT MEANS TO YOU: Whether you are enrolled in programs that are supposed to help people in need or not, it’s time for a look at how it all works and why work requirements aren’t the good idea some people think they are.

Every time Congress squabbles over how money is being spent, it’s a sure thing that the people who rely on and need government programs the most are the ones who end up getting screwed over. 

While most government spending is funded by taxes, the debt ceiling discussion, like all such discussions, didn’t include any serious consideration of whether wealthier people should pay their fair share after benefiting from decades of tax cuts, including the 2017 tax changes.

Instead, focus was on the continuous erosion of benefits for those who need them most, which started during the Reagan administration and rooted deep in systemic racism and classism.

People expect government to run like a business, but it’s not one. Its purpose is to support its citizens, not to make a profit or provide dividends to shareholders. Many enlightened countries around the globe make sure those least able to care for themselves are supported. It’s been shown time and time again that when the people at the bottom of the wealth ladder get a lift, it makes for a stronger economy and ends up costing the government less in the long run.

But that never plays well in federal politics.

It’s obvious that what many people who live in poverty need is just a little bit of support to lift them up to the next level, as well as recognize the challenges of inadequate transportation, child care, and other obstacles to gaining wealth.

The American Rescue Plan temporarily reduced poverty in 2020 by more than 12 million people, half of them children, by simply providing a small amount of added income directly to low-income Americans. It was the biggest reduction in poverty in the United States in 50 years. 

Yet, when it comes to resolving the self-imposed debt ceiling crisis, the go-to was the usual suspects – people who need government help the most. 

The biggest changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, which change work requirements, don’t result in any spending reduction. Multiple studies show over the years that work requirements don’t decrease the need for benefits that help low-income individuals and families. In fact, the SNAP changes will increase federal spending by an estimated $2.1 billion by 2030.

Work requirements for such benefits have been repeatedly shown not to work, and are punitive and mean-spirited, largely based on false assumptions. They don’t save money for anyone, and just add to the poverty spiral.

SNAP Changes

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has had work requirements for nearly three decades, thanks to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act of 1996, usually referred to as the Welfare Reform Act.

SNAP recipients between 18 and 49 who are “able-bodied” and with no dependents are required to work 20 hours a week or be enrolled in a government-approved training program for 20 hours a week. If they don’t meet the requirement, they are cut off after three months and can’t apply again for 36 months.

The work requirements were introduced because of the false belief that most people who get SNAP – at the time called Food Stamps – don’t have jobs, and the benefit keeps them from having any desire to get one.

Actually, about three-quarters of people who get the benefit – including an estimated 30,000 active-duty military families – do work. Those who don’t, usually can’t. More on that later.

The debt ceiling deal increases the work requirement age from 49 to 54 over the next three years.

Exempt from the change are veterans and homeless people, of any age, as well as people 18 to 24 who have aged out of the foster care system.

The debt ceiling change expires in 2030, unless it’s renewed by Congress.

No one is getting rich on SNAP benefits. The average monthly benefit in the U.S. this year for an individual is $195 a month (in New Hampshire, the individual maximum is $281, depending on income). The national average is $684 for a family of four (New Hampshire’s maximum is $989). 

The work requirement exemptions for veterans, homeless people and former foster care kids will increase the number of people who can continue to get a SNAP benefit after three months by about 78,000, or 0.2% this year, according to the Congressional Budget Office. It will increase federal spending by $2.1 billion over the next seven years, because fewer SNAP recipients will be cut off after three months.

Nearly 750,000 adults 50 through 54 may come under the new work requirement, and an estimated 250,000 would lose benefits, according to the CBO.

Those who study the industry also predict a lot of people who qualify will lose benefits, or not realize they can apply for them, because the changes will require bureaucratic red tape and cause a lot of confusion.

There is no evidence that the change will launch anyone who gets SNAP benefits over the poverty line or reduce federal spending.

The ‘Work Requirement’ Battle

There is a false belief that people who receive SNAP are lolling around at home watching soap operas (or something, I’m never sure what critics of it envision). You can thank the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and the 15 years of racism and classism-based political pressure that led to it for that misperception. (More on that in a bit.)

The truth is that about 75% of people who receive SNAP benefits have jobs either while they’re receiving them, or in the year they received the benefit. They just don’t make enough money to feed themselves or their families. As mentioned earlier, this includes an estimated 30,000 active-duty military families.

Those who don’t work, can’t, for a variety of reasons. 

The false belief that many who receive government benefits are lazy and fraudulent began picking up serious traction with the Reagan administration. President Ronald Reagan’s vow to go after “welfare queens,” validated a racist trope many Americans had that continues today.

Since work requirements were added to SNAP in 1996, there has been a constant drumbeat to increase them even though multiple studies show they’re ineffective at best and punitive at worst.

Work requirement proposals are “often rooted in prejudices about people based on race, gender, disability status, and class,” according to the Center on Budget Policy Priorities. A study found that the incomes of most benefit recipients subject to work requirements didn’t increase substantially, or at all, 18  months after leaving the benefits program.

The most recent push to increase SNAP work requirements, before the debt ceiling deal, was the America Works Act, introduced in March by Rep. Dusty Johnson, R-South Dakota. The bill seeks to raise the work requirement age limit to 65, require recipients with kids over 7 to work, and would close “the loophole” Johnson claims 18 states are now “abusing” that waives work requirements in certain situations.

“With more than 11 million open jobs, there are plenty of opportunities for SNAP recipients to escape poverty and build a better life,” Johnson said in a March news release.

Johnson must have not done much research before writing his bill, because he’s missed the decades of research that shows that work requirements do not “lift people out of poverty,” but often plunge them farther into it once they lose their benefits.

Many SNAP beneficiaries who don’t work are caring for children or a family member who doesn’t qualify under federal rules as a dependent, have transportation challenges that make getting to a job hard, are victims of labor market discrimination, or can’t find a job they’re qualified for in their area.

Nearly 75% of SNAP recipients who are over 18 work either while getting benefits, or in the year they got benefits, that rises to 90% in households with children and at least one-working age adult, according to the CPBB. 

Many SNAP beneficiaries work in essential jobs, such as grocery cashier, cook or home health aide. The majority of these jobs have low wages, no sick leave, unpredictable schedules and other issues that make it hard for someone to stay in the job. SNAP participants are often temporarily between jobs, and use the benefit while they look for work.

The “loophole” Johnson refers to is that a state can waive a work requirement, allowing a recipient to exceed the three-month limit on benefits, if they don’t qualify for any jobs in the area or they have other extenuating circumstances that keep them from working.

If the person loses their SNAP benefit, it doesn’t change that situation.

In any case, most states don’t even take advantage of the waiver. States do little to support recipients who want to find work, the CBPP found. 

“SNAP recipients whose state operates few or no employment programs and fails to offer them a spot in a work or training program — which is the case in most states — have their benefits cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job,” the organization said in March in response to Johnson’s bill. 

“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 CBPP said. 

In New Hampshire, 39,129 families, representing 73,370 people, were enrolled in SNAP as of February. Of the New Hampshire residents who are eligible for SNAP, about 75% don’t enroll, according to industry officials. An estimated 15,000 SNAP recipients in New Hampshire would lose their benefits under the Johnson bill, including 7,000 children and 3,000 people over the age of 50. 

Johnson’s bill is likely a non-starter – it’s hasn’t gotten out of committee since it was introduced and the new SNAP changes, which took a lot of negotiation over several weeks, likely are redundant to whatever it is Johnson and his 42 Republican co-sponsors are trying to achieve. 

The SNAP changes in the debt ceiling deal aren’t as extreme, but the outcome is basically the same. Aside from the veterans, the unhoused population and foster-care graduates, the change doesn’t benefit anyone’s bottom line, not recipients and not the federal government.

TANF: Another Work Requirement Fail

One part of the debt ceiling deal that’s gotten less attention than the SNAP change is the new work requirement formula for Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. 

The federal aid is administered by states and is supposed to provide temporary financial support for low-income pregnant women and families with dependent children. It was created in 1996 to replace the hugely successful Aid for Families with Dependent Children program, which had been around since 1935.

The 1996 legislation – the same law that created SNAP work requirements – was designed to reduce federal spending on low-income Americans. It is often touted for doing just that, but what gets left out is that it significantly increased poverty in the U.S.

Many of the changes brought about by that law were firmly entrenched in systemic racism, sexism and classism. Taking away much of federal control and leaving TANF administration to the states continues that trend.

In 1979, 82% of families in poverty received aid under AFDC. In 1996, right before the program was replaced with TANF, the number was 75%. When TANF began, it provided benefits to 68% of families in poverty. By 2020, that was down to 21%.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides grants to states for the program to states, which contribute their own money, and administer the program as they see fit under some general federal requirements. Recipients can get benefits for up to five years, depending on their circumstances, but most states have much briefer limits.

There are four provisions by the federal government for use of TANF money, and states don’t have to cover all four. Two are for “needy” families, with states determining what “needy” means. TANF can be used to support children in needy families to be cared for in their own homes or the homes of relatives, and it can be used to reduce dependency on government aid by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage.

The two other provisions allow any family can qualify, regardless of need. Those are preventing pregnancies among unmarried women and encouraging formation and maintenance of two-parent families. 

Because states decide how the money is used, benefit amounts vary wildly. In July 2021, the maximum benefit for a family of three ranged from $204 in Arkansas (11% of the federal poverty level that year) to $1,098 in New Hampshire (60% of the FPL), with a national median of $498 (27% of the FPL0), according to the CBPP.

States are required to show that 50% of all families getting assistance and 90% of two-parent households met work requirements that include employment, training, job search aid, community service, and the like. States are penalized financially for not meeting the requirement.

The debt ceiling deal changes the formula, requiring a higher number of families to meet work requirements. States can also no longer count employed people who get less than $35 a month in the work participation rate,

States are required to reduce or terminate a benefit when a family member doesn’t comply with work requirements without “good cause.” The state decides what good cause is, and what the sanction will be. Nearly all states take away an entire family’s benefit if a parent doesn’t meet the work requirements.

States often apply sanctions inappropriately to parents who have significant barriers to work, like physical and behavioral health issues, those fleeing domestic violence, those with low levels of education and limited work experience, and parents with lack of access to child care or transportation, the CBPP found.

“Nearly every study comparing the race and ethnicity of sanctioned and non-sanctioned TANF participants finds that families of color, especially Black families, are significantly more likely to be sanctioned than their white counterparts,” the report said. “TANF has, for the most part, failed these families — many of whom have become disconnected from both work and cash assistance — by providing them with neither a reliable safety net nor employment assistance that adequately addresses their employment barriers.”

The program “has never lived up to its promise of moving families out of poverty through work,” the CBPP said in its 2020 report. 

And the effort to do so is lackluster. States spend only 10% of TANF money overall on work, education, and training that would connect parents to jobs. 

The 2020 report also said that the work participation rate doesn’t measure employment outcomes after leaving the program, and that many who leave it have unstable work and still live below the poverty line.

One good outcome of the debt ceiling deal as far as TANF goes is that it requires states to follow up after recipients leave the program and report on earnings and employment, which will be the basis for a pilot program for a possible complete formula change in the future.

Other CBPP recommendations for improving TANF are that states reinvest program money back into basic assistance and other areas to meet families’ basic needs, remove barriers to qualifying, end punitive policies, and redesign work programs so they are more likely to result in employment.

The CBPP also recommends that TANF undo racist policies and hone its focus so that the primary purpose is cash benefits to the neediest of families.

Unlike work requirements, all those suggestions can help lift individuals and families above the poverty line.

Given the outcome of the debt ceiling negotiations, where largely punitive measures were increased that don’t reduce federal spending (and in the case of SNAP work requirements, will increase it), I won’t keep my fingers crossed on any of that happening.

— Look for a special second It’s Your Money later this week that looks at how the debt ceiling deal benefits veterans in several ways.


About this Contributor

Maureen Milliken

Maureen Milliken is a contract reporter and content producer for consumer financial agencies. She has worked for northern New England publications, including the New Hampshire Union Leader, for 25 years, and most recently at Mainebiz in Portland, Maine. She can be found on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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