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 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.