In Focus: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)

Jul 22, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Alabama and Texas Lift Bans on Public Assistance for Individuals Previously Convicted of Drug-Related Crimes

By Randi Hall

The 1990s “War on Drugs” led to the implementation of laws that single out individuals previously convicted of drug-related felonies for disproportionate and lasting penalties.  The 1996 welfare law denied such individuals access to both cash assistance under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and nutrition assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unless states chose to opt-out or modify the ban.  Most states have done so, recognizing that these bans are unjustified as a “double punishment” for individuals who have completed their prison term while making it harder for  people to readjust to society.

This summer, both Alabama and Texas joined the list of state that have modified or repealed these bans. Starting in January 2016, Alabama will override the full bans that have prohibited individuals from accessing either SNAP or TANF. The Texas law only modified the ban affecting SNAP, but will go into effect in September 2015. Texas SNAP recipients who violate parole or are convicted of another drug-related charge would still be denied further SNAP receipt. Both states passed their respective policy changes via prison and criminal justice reform bills, rather than legislation focused on public assistance programs.

In a policy brief, CLASP has detailed the detrimental consequences of preventing ex-offenders who have paid their debt to society from accessing income and work supports. Parents with a drug felony conviction face economic discrimination when searching for employment, making access to programs like SNAP vital for families with children facing food insecurity.  Moreover, SNAP recipients are eligible for employment and training services under SNAP E&T, which would support ex-offenders in gaining the skills needed to secure stable jobs. Similarly, banning TANF benefits for ex-offenders reduces the cash assistance a family may receive and may also reduce access to other supportive services, such as child care and transportation services, needed to find employment.  The effects of these bans fall lopsidedly on communities of color due to the disproportionate enforcement and prosecution of drug laws in these communities.

As of July 2015, only seven states continue to enforce a full lifetime drug felony ban on SNAP benefits, while twelve states have kept lifetime bans for TANF receipt in place.  CLASP urges the remaining states to reflect on the hardships created by such laws and to lift these bans on public benefits.

May 19, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Addressing Time Limits in SNAP: What We Are Learning

By Helly Lee

SNAP is a critical nutritional support for many low-income people. But working age adults without children are subject to a time limit on receiving SNAP benefits of just three months during any 36-month period unless they are working or participating in a qualifying work activity at least 20 hours a week.  The time limit applies to recipients who:

  • Are 18-49 years of old;
  • Do not have a documented disability;
  • Are not raising or residing in a household with minor children; and
  • Are not working or participating in a qualifying activity for at least 20 hours per week.

Because of these rules, people subject to the time limit are sometimes referred to as "able-bodied adults without dependents" or "ABAWDS."

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has estimated that nearly 1 million people will be cut off of SNAP in 2016 due to this time limit. States have long had the ability to waive this time limit in areas where there are high unemployment rates or other indicators of lack of jobs. In the Great Recession, nearly all states received statewide waivers of the time limits due to high unemployment. As unemployment rates decrease, however, the statewide waivers are going away and bringing back the time limit in many places.

The time limit applies regardless of an individual’s efforts in seeking employment or if they are employed for less than 20 hours per week. Individuals subject to the time limit are an especially vulnerable population that typically does not qualify for cash benefits, so the loss of food assistance through SNAP has a significant impact on their lives. CBPP reports that those affected are extremely poor. Over 80 percent of individuals subject to the time limit live in households with income below half of the poverty line.

While ABAWD individuals are required to be employed or in qualified work or training activities for 20 or more hours per week in order to maintain their SNAP benefits, states are not required to offer individuals the opportunity to participate in such an activity, and most states do not do so. One place that committed to doing so is Franklin County (Columbus), Ohio, where the SNAP agency entered into an innovative partnership with the Ohio Association of Foodbanks to offer recipients subject to the time limit an opportunity to participate in qualifying work and training activities through a pilot called the Work Experience Program (WEP). While the program is only in one county, it is the only effort in the state to help individuals who face the time limit on SNAP and is an innovative example that highlights the need to strengthen efforts to better serve this population. The program placed individuals in volunteer roles at local nonprofits, workforce development partners and faith-based organizations to gain work experience.

As part of this pilot, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks conducted a comprehensive assessment of the individuals participating in the pilot. The assessment revealed that many participants experienced barriers that made it difficult to secure jobs such as undiagnosed mental and physical disabilities; inadequate access to transportation to get to and from work; and criminal histories. They found that even though participants were identified as “able bodied adults without dependents” 32.6 percent of their clients self-reported a physical or mental health limitation that makes them unable to work. In addition, 13 percent indicated that they were caregivers for a parent, relative or friend.

Individuals also experienced educational barriers. Of those surveyed, 30.1 percent indicated that they didn't have a high school diploma or GED, limiting their prospects to jobs that are often low-paying. Of the 67.8 percent who had graduated from high school or obtained a GED, 36.7 percent had attended college; however, a small portion of those (9.5 percent) graduated from college with a degree.

The assessment also found that transportation barriers were a major obstacle to an individual’s job prospects and ability to maintain employment. While a monthly travel stipend was provided from their county case worker, many reported not having received the stipend, or that the stipend was insufficient, especially in situations where individuals did not have bank accounts and cashing the travel check resulted in a service fee deduction.

For individuals with a history of involvement in the criminal justice system, the barriers were further compounded. Over 34 percent of those surveyed had previous felony convictions, and 10.4 percent were on probation or parole. For individuals with a history of a previous conviction, the stigma can last indefinitely-- even if they have been law-abiding in recent years--and can have a profound impact on an individual’s ability to obtain a job.

This snapshot of individuals subject to the time limit in Franklin County, while not nationally representative, provides evidence of the numerous barriers that individuals face and the needs that remain to strengthen resources for this population. There is an urgent need to strengthen employment and training programs and supports to better serve this population. SNAP is a critical support for individuals, and the time limit on benefits for childless workers puts millions at risk of losing access to needed nutrition assistance. While states can obtain federal SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) funding to provide support for those subject to the time limit, the dedicated funding isn’t sufficient for providing the necessary services that many individuals subject to the time limit need in order to succeed in employment, let alone serve as a resource for all eligible SNAP participants. However, states can draw down additional federal funding for SNAP E&T if they are able to spend non-federal funds. It is critical that advocates and others concerned about supporting poor and low-income people gather stakeholder investment, support and resources from partner non-profit organizations, the state agency and through public and private partnerships to create and strengthen E&T programs. It is challenging to both expand the reach of E&T programs and to make them more effective, but both are needed.

Apr 7, 2015  |  PERMALINK »

Listen to the Evidence: Protect SNAP

By Randi Hall

In a recent hearing on the use of evidence to guide federal investments in social policy held by the Subcommittee on Human Resources in the House Committee on Ways and Means, a witness invited by the Republican majority, John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises, highlighted the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a program with a strong backing in evidence.  Bridgeland cited a 2014 longitudinal study of SNAP that illustrates the program helps to “[address] severe malnutrition and alleviate hunger,” while also increasing employment rates and reducing welfare receipt of poor mothers. 

In spite of the strong evidence of the effectiveness of SNAP benefits, the U.S. House and Senate Republican leadership have outlined FY2016 budget proposals that would slash SNAP and steeply cut the social safety net for millions of low-income children and families. In particular, the House budget would convert the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) into a block grant and cut $125 billion from the program between 2021 and 2025.Turning SNAP into a block grant would mean that states receive a set amount of allocated funding for the program, which would dismantle the program’s current ability to expand during an economic decline to serve the growing needs of families as it did in the recent recession, and then retract as the economy recovers.

As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains, the House budget’s cuts would come on top of recent and upcoming reductions that families and individuals are already experiencing. The 2014 Farm Bill cut SNAP spending by an estimated $8.6 billion over a decade.   In addition, over a million unemployed workers are projected to lose benefits in 2016 due to SNAP time limits.  

If Congress agrees once again to cut SNAP spending it could undermine the economic recovery for millions of low-income households. The Congressional Budget Office has conducted analyses of the effects of cutting SNAP spending by 15%, or $77 billion, in 2016. CBO examined the economic impacts on low-income households of three possible strategies to achieve this reduction:

  • Reduce the maximum SNAP benefit by 13 percent for all participants.  This would hurt households with incomes below $15,000 the most, decreasing their total annual income by 4 percent.
  • Increase the benefit phase-out rate from 30 to 49 percent. If the benefit phase-out rate were raised, SNAP benefits for households earning between $25,000 and $32,000 would fall by almost $1,200 a year.
  • Reduce the monthly income limit for eligibility from 130 to 67 percent of the federal poverty line. This change would affect households making between $15,000 and $25,000 the hardest, reducing their annual SNAP benefits by nearly 40 percent. 

Congressional Budget Office analysis of the effects of total SNAP Benefits in 2016 of three options to reduce SNAP spending by 15 percent.

According to U.S. Census data, SNAP lifted as many as 3.7 million people out of poverty in 2013.  Shrinking SNAP benefits would affect the country’s most vulnerable populations and would increase food insecurity among poor children.  Congress should listen to John Bridgeland, listen to the evidence, and preserve this highly effective program.

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