Food stamp purchases are scanned by a cashier at a ShopRite grocery story Monday, April 23, 2012, in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
Roughly 1 million of the nation’s poorest people will be cut off SNAP (formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) over the course of 2016, due to the return in many areas of a three-month limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed adults aged 18-50 who aren’t disabled or raising minor children. These individuals will lose their food assistance benefits after three months regardless of how hard they are looking for work.
One of the harshest pieces of the 1996 welfare law, this provision limits such individuals to three months of SNAP benefits in any 36-month period when they aren’t employed or in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week. Even SNAP recipients whose state operates few or no employment programs for them 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. Because this provision denies basic food assistance to people who want to work and will accept any job or work program slot offered, it is effectively a severe time limit rather than a work requirement, as such requirements are commonly understood. Work requirements in public assistance programs typically require people to look for work and accept any job or employment program slot that is offered but do not cut off people who are willing to work and looking for a job simply because they can’t find one.
In the past few years, the three-month limit hasn’t been in effect in most states. The 1996 welfare law allows states to suspend the three-month limit in areas with high and sustained unemployment; many states qualified due to the Great Recession and its aftermath and waived the time limit throughout the state. But as unemployment rates fall, fewer and fewer areas will qualify for waivers. We estimate that the number of states qualifying for state-wide waivers will fall to just a few states by 2016 and that approximately 1 million SNAP recipients will have their benefits cut off due to the time limit in fiscal year 2016.
The loss of this food assistance, which averages approximately $150 to $200 per person per month for this group, will likely cause serious hardship among many. Agriculture Department (USDA) data show that the individuals subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of approximately 19 percent of the poverty line, and they typically qualify for no other income support.
The indigent individuals at risk are diverse. About 40 percent are women. Close to one-third are over age 40. Among those who report their race, about half are white, a third are African American, and a tenth are Hispanic. Half have only a high school diploma or GED. They live in all areas of the country, and among those for whom data on metropolitan status are available, about 40 percent live in urban areas, 40 percent in suburban areas, and 20 percent in rural areas.
Many in this population, which generally has limited education and skills and limited job prospects, struggle to find employment even in normal economic times. And although the overall unemployment rate is slowly falling, other labor market data indicate that many people who want to work still cannot find jobs, while others who want to work full time can find only part-time employment. Cutting off food assistance to poor unemployed and underemployed workers doesn’t enable them to find employment or secure more hours of work.
Congress could revise this harsh rule to better accomplish its stated goal of testing individuals’ willingness to work. For example, Congress could make the three-month limit in a given state contingent on the state offering a job or training position to all nondisabled childless adults subject to the limit who don’t otherwise find employment. Congress could also allow diligent job search to count toward the requirement, as it generally does under work requirements for other programs.
But such congressional action seems unlikely. Consequently, states and local charities that work with this population need to prepare for the return of the three-month cut-off provision on a large scale. States need to be prepared to reinstate this complex rule properly and to engage stakeholders and prepare them for the consequences as substantial numbers of indigent individuals in their communities lose food assistance.
Very Few States Provide Work or Job Training to All Who Need It
Under the 1996 welfare law, adults aged 18-49 who are not physically or mentally unfit for work or caring for a minor child are ineligible for SNAP if they have received three months of SNAP benefits while unemployed during the previous 36 months. Months of SNAP receipt don’t count toward the limit if the individual is working at least half-time, participating in qualifying work or training program activities for at least 20 hours a week, or living in an area with high unemployment where the three-month limit is temporarily waived. When signing the welfare law in 1996, President Clinton singled out this as one of the bill’s most harmful provisions and called for it to be substantially changed.
Since states don’t provide half-time employment opportunities to SNAP recipients, the only way that an unemployed person can maintain SNAP eligibility during normal economic times (i.e., when a high-unemployment waiver is unavailable) is to find 20 hours a week of job training, workfare, or another work program. As noted, job search, the lowest cost activity for a state to require and monitor, does not count as an allowable activity.
Yet states aren’t required to offer these recipients a place in a work or training program for 20 hours a week, and very few states do. This leaves it up to individuals who can’t find a job to try to find training or work program openings on their own, which few are able to do, especially since most training programs have insufficient resources to meet demand, resulting in substantial waiting lists. A person who wants to work but is unable to find a job, and is willing to participate in job training but has no opportunity to do so, loses all of his or her SNAP benefits at the three-month point.
The welfare law allows states to request a temporary waiver of the three-month limit in areas with persistently high unemployment, an option that was critical to Congress’ approval of the three-month cut-off. Then-representatives John Kasich (R-OH) and Rob Ney (R-OH), the three-month limit’s authors in 1996, said on the House floor that the provision wouldn’t have draconian effects for two reasons: 1) states would offer workfare programs to all people who couldn’t find a job; and 2) states could seek waivers to suspend the three-month cut-off in localities with high unemployment or insufficient jobs. They presented the provision as one that would push people to look for work, provide them with a workfare slot if they couldn’t find a job, and allow states to waive the requirement if there were insufficient jobs.
But despite the authors’ claims, the provision neither required states to offer workfare programs or job training to people who were unable to find a job nor provided funds to states for that purpose. Most states do not offer these programs, in part because operating a work program with enough slots for everyone at risk of hitting the three-month time limit is too expensive.
Each year, only about five states commit to provide a job training or workfare slot to every nondisabled childless adult at risk of losing SNAP benefits after three months. (Colorado, Delaware, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin have pledged to offer a qualifying work slot in 2015 to every nondisabled childless adult subject to the three-month limit.) States that offer a training slot to all individuals facing the time limit can receive a pro-rata share of $20 million in federal funding to defray the cost. (The $20 million annual fund was established in 1997 in response to criticism of the 1996 law.)
Each state also receives its share of the regular $79 million in federal funding provided to states each year for SNAP employment and training programs. Most states, however, use the majority of the federal funds for programs and work-related services for other SNAP recipients, such as those with children. Moreover, these resources generally fall far short of the cost of providing work or training programs to all jobless individuals in a state who face the three-month cut-off, even if the state wanted to do so.
In contrast, the temporary waiver option for areas with high unemployment has provided significant protection in the past few years for people facing the three-month limit. During the Great Recession, nearly every state suspended the time limit due to soaring unemployment. In stronger economic times, a smaller number of states with regions or counties with persistently high unemployment have received waivers for those areas.
Use of these high-unemployment waivers hasn’t had a political dimension; every state except Delaware has used its waiver authority at some point over the last 18 years to temporarily suspend the three-month limit in at least part of the state so that poor jobless workers in high-unemployment areas would have access to food while looking for work. Governors of both parties have used this flexibility in high-unemployment areas of their states.
Today, with a job market that remains weak in many areas, over 40 states have waivers for some or all of their state for fiscal year 2015. Many of the states with waivers from the three-month limit impose regular SNAP work requirements on childless unemployed adults, and individuals who don’t comply with the work requirements are subject to having their benefits cut off. But they are not terminated from SNAP simply for being unemployed, as long as they comply with their state’s work requirements.
Most of these waivers, however, expire after 2015. At that point, based on current unemployment rates, at most only a few states appear likely to have high levels of statewide unemployment that would qualify them for a statewide waiver, and more than 1 million childless nondisabled adults will lose SNAP benefits in 2016. The number will be larger if states don’t request waivers for high-unemployment areas within a state that continue to qualify for the waivers.
History Shows Many Lose Benefits When Time Limit Imposed
The three-month time limit is now in effect in areas with about 30 percent of the U.S. population; the rest of the country has had sufficiently high and persistent unemployment still to qualify for waivers, although as just noted, this is the last year that will be the case. As the economy continues to improve, the vast majority of the country will no longer qualify for these waivers.
As waivers disappear across the country, some nondisabled childless adults subject to the three-month limit will be able to meet the requirements necessary to maintain SNAP eligibility, such as finding at least half-time work, participating in job training for at least 20 hours a week, or qualifying for an exemption. But we estimate that many — approximately 1 million poor individuals — will lose SNAP benefits after three months of participation. (We developed this estimate using historical SNAP administrative data; data from USDA on historical trends in states’ usage of waivers; and current county-level unemployment data, used to project 2016 waiver eligibility.)
The recent history of states that have re-imposed the three-month limit is illustrative. In fiscal year 2014, Kansas, Ohio, and Oklahoma were three of the states that re-imposed the time limit after several years of statewide waivers. Three months after the time limit took effect, each state’s caseload dropped significantly. While caseloads had been slowly declining (as is typical when unemployment falls) even before re-imposition of the time limit, the drop accelerated substantially three months after the time limit returned.
For example, Kansas re-imposed the time limit in October 2013, with the first childless adults losing eligibility three months later, in January. The caseload decline expected due to the improving economy — about 3,000 to 4,000 participants per month — suddenly accelerated in January to about 15,000 individuals, then returned to its previous pace (see Figure 1). None of these three states offered workfare or job training to all nondisabled childless adults at risk of losing benefits.
Ohio County Illustrates Potential Problems as Waivers Expire
A significant share of the more than 3,000 nondisabled childless adults in Franklin County, Ohio who became subject to the three-month cut-off after Ohio re-imposed the time limit there in December 2013 faced multiple barriers to employment, according to a study conducted by the Ohio Association of Foodbanks. The findings highlight the issues that other states may face as their waivers expire.
- Demographics: Close to one-third of those subject to the three-month limit had never graduated from high school. Just over 10 percent were working for pay at the time their benefits were terminated; another 10 percent were performing work in exchange for in-kind benefits such as housing.
- Barriers to employment: One-third of those subject to the three-month cut-off had a medical or physical limitation, including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, or mental or learning disabilities. Fifteen percent needed supportive services like language interpretation or transportation to obtain employment. In addition, 13 percent reported being caregivers for a parent, relative, or friend. Finally, just about one-third had felony convictions, another barrier to employment.
For more information, see “A Comprehensive Assessment of Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents and Their Participation in the Work Experience Program in Franklin County, Ohio,” http://admin.ohiofoodbanks.org/uploads/news/WEP-2013-2014-report.pdf.
Affected People Are Extremely Poor
Unemployed, nondisabled childless adults on SNAP tend to be very poor. USDA data show that while these individuals participate in SNAP their gross income averages 19 percent of the poverty line — about $2,200 per year for a household of one in 2014 — compared to gross income of 58.5 percent of the poverty line for the average SNAP household overall. Over 80 percent of the people subject to the three-month limit live in households with incomes below half of the poverty line (see Figure 2). Some 96 percent of them live in households below 100 percent of the poverty line.
Some 40 percent of this vulnerable population are women. Almost one-third are over age 40. Among those who report their race, about half are white, a third are African American, and a tenth are Hispanic. Half have only a high school diploma or GED. They live in all areas of the country; among those for whom data on metropolitan status are available, about 40 percent live in urban areas, 40 percent in suburban areas, and 20 percent in rural areas. (See Figure 3.)
Other kinds of assistance won’t replace the lost SNAP benefits. SNAP is the only benefit available to most unemployed workers without children. All but a few states have eliminated their state-run cash assistance programs for poor childless adults (except, in some states, for people with a disability). Most unemployed workers on SNAP either don’t qualify for unemployment insurance or any other federal or state cash or food assistance benefit or are long-term unemployed workers who have exhausted their unemployment benefits.
Labor-Market Opportunities for These Individuals Are Limited
There is little evidence that SNAP participation discourages nondisabled adults from working when jobs are available. These generally are low-income, low-skill workers with limited job prospects. SNAP participants subject to the three-month cut-off are more likely than other SNAP participants to lack basic job skills like reading, writing, and basic mathematics, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found.
While the economy is improving and the national unemployment rate is falling slowly, the labor market remains weak, particularly for low-skilled, less-educated individuals such as those who face the three-month cut-off.
- The unemployment rate for people lacking a high school diploma or GED — who make up about a quarter of all non-disabled childless adults on SNAP — stood at 9 percent in an average month of 2014 to date. Unemployment rates for workers in many lower-skilled occupations, such as the service industries, are also substantially higher than the overall unemployment rate.
- The employment-to-population ratio — the share of the adult population with a job (which is considered one of the best measures of labor-market strength or weakness since, unlike the unemployment rate, it isn’t lowered artificially when long-term unemployed workers give up looking and drop out of the labor force) — plummeted during the Great Recession and remains well below pre-recession levels.
- Long-term unemployment hit record highs in the recession and remains unusually high; in November 2014, more than three in ten (30.7 percent) of the nation’s 9.1 million unemployed workers had been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer. Workers who, at a given point in time, have been unemployed for more than six months are only half as likely as those unemployed for shorter periods to have found employment by one year later.
- Many of the jobs being created in the recovery are low paying and part time — in some cases for less than 20 hours a week — so some people who manage to find jobs may qualify for, and need, SNAP — and be subject to the three-month cut-off.
Complexity of Time Limit May Cause Even More People to Lose Benefits
SNAP’s time limit is complex and presents substantial administrative challenges. Additional SNAP participants risk having their benefits cut off after three months despite being exempt from the three-month limit — or being in compliance with it.
Tracking Months of Eligibility
To determine whether a nondisabled childless adult is eligible for SNAP, a state must identify the individual as a nondisabled childless adult, determine whether an exemption applies, and (for those not found exempt) determine for each month whether the individual worked or participated in a work or job training program for the required number of hours. In addition, the state must track the 36-month period for each individual in order to determine whether the three-month limit has been reached. This is the only provision in SNAP law that requires counting and tracking months in this way, and it necessitates special computer programming and staff training.
Over the last several years, many states, driven by the demands of the Affordable Care Act, have designed, built, and implemented new automated eligibility systems. This technological improvement occurred while the majority of states had statewide waivers from the three-month limit and thus no need to track individual months in order to apply the three-month limit. Some states may not yet have programmed their systems to operationalize the time-limit rules. Many states will need to move quickly to review and revise their computer technology and rules to accommodate the monthly tracking of SNAP participants subject to the time limit.
Ensuring That No One Inadvertently Loses Benefits
Our estimate that 1 million people will lose food assistance doesn’t include people who are supposed to be exempt from the time limit. When the three-month limit again takes widespread effect, states are supposed to assess each childless adult to determine whether an exemption applies, in order to ensure that people who are unable to work continue to qualify for SNAP. If states fail to do so accurately, some individuals could lose food assistance inappropriately.
For example, states may not always provide adequate guidance for caseworkers to identify people with temporary disabling injuries or mental illness who are unable to work for a period of time and thus are supposed to be exempt. Many SNAP participants are unaware that temporary disabling injuries can qualify someone for an exemption. (See the box for more on implementation issues.)
The challenges involved in implementing the three-month limit require state administrative resources. There is risk that some under-resourced SNAP agencies may inadvertently allow some childless adults to fall through the cracks.
Designing Training Programs That Allow People to Retain SNAP Eligibility
While states are not required to provide a training opportunity or connection to a job, some states use a portion of their SNAP employment and training (E&T) programs to provide activities that enable some individuals to continue to receive benefits. Only a limited number of work-related activities, however, count toward the 20-hour-per-week requirement. One activity that does not count is job search — states’ most common and least expensive type of SNAP E&T activity, which requires an individual to apply for a designated number of jobs within a specified time period.
Communities and Service Providers Need Advance Warning
States have limited options to minimize the harsh impact of the three-month time limit once a waiver is no longer available. States with an impending return of the three-month limit need to prepare heavily affected local communities for the loss of federal food assistance on a substantial scale.
Community groups and service providers such as food banks, homeless shelters, low-income veterans’ groups, job training centers, and health clinics count on SNAP as a resource for their clients. They need to know these individuals will face added challenges in meeting basic needs.
With affected people losing an average of $150 to $200 a month in benefits, food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens can expect a sustained increase in food requests. Many food banks likely will need to raise additional funds to meet increased demand. Private charity, however, cannot fully replace the lost SNAP benefits: the loss of benefits for 1 million people just for a few months exceeds total federal funding for food banks nationwide for all of fiscal year 2015.
Shelters may see an increase in need as some people forgo rent payments to buy food. Health care providers may need to know when a patient’s food budget is slashed in order to manage medications and other treatments. Employment programs serving ex-offenders and others facing substantial barriers to employment may find their clients with even fewer resources as they look for work.
While federal law requires states to inform individuals subject to the three-month time limit about their eligibility, it doesn’t require states to inform other stakeholders of the re-imposition of the limit, and some state officials may not wish to draw attention to the fact that hundreds or thousands of poor residents could face increased hardship and hunger. Yet organizations that serve this population will need information about the change since it will have a large impact on the people they serve.
Congress Could Avert or Reduce Potential Harm from Three-Month Limit
The three-month limit for childless nondisabled adults is one of the most severe eligibility restrictions in SNAP. One effective way policymakers could moderate hunger and hardship among low-income people would be to alter the three-month rule so it truly functions as the work requirement its proponents often mistakenly portray it as being — that is, as a work requirement that tests an individual’s willingness to work by offering a job or position in a work or training program or requiring job search. Such an approach requires a state to offer a job or training position or other work activity, or to require job search, for all nondisabled childless adults subject to the limit. Those who fail to comply lose their benefits. Those who comply do not.
Other potential changes could mitigate the rule’s harshness by being more realistic about this population’s employment prospects. For example, the time limit could be increased from three to six months, based on research showing that the average duration of SNAP benefits for childless adults was six months prior to enactment of the time limit, and also reflecting the fact that the typical duration of state unemployment benefits is six months. This would give unemployed individuals a more realistic amount of time to find 20 hours a week or more of employment. In both 2002 and 2008, the Senate voted on a bipartisan basis to extend the limit to six months.
Still another improvement would be to expand the kinds of allowable work activities, and in particular, to include job search. Modestly increasing the funding for SNAP E&T also could help states provide more work activities and opportunities for the indigent individuals subject to the time limit.
The return of the three-month limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed, nondisabled childless adults will have far-reaching impacts on low-income SNAP participants. The loss of benefits will likely increase hardship for these 1 million unemployed Americans who rely upon SNAP to meet their basic nutritional needs. With Congress unlikely to act, states need to begin planning for the reduction to ensure that clients and the many organizations and SNAP stakeholders that work with them are aware of the upcoming change and its effects.