Congress Must Repeal SNAP Student “Work-for-Food” Requirements

By Ashley Burnside

College students have faced extreme financial difficulty during the COVID-19 crisis. They’ve had to leave their campuses and lost part-time jobs and other sources of income—and student parents have lost access to child care. At the same time, college costs continue to be increasingly expensive. According to the Georgetown Center on Poverty and Inequality, older college students (those 25 through 45) spend on average about $30,900 per year beyond the costs of tuition. Unfortunately, hunger among college students was high even before the public health crisis. According to the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, 45 percent of students reported recent struggles to afford or access food before COVID-19.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one critical resource that can help students afford food while attending classes. But the SNAP eligibility rules for students are overly complicated, forcing those who don’t meet other qualifying criteria to work at least 20 hours per week to be eligible for food benefits in addition to meeting other SNAP income and eligibility requirements. But long hours of work can make it harder for students, particularly those with low incomes, to succeed in school and graduate.

Congress temporarily eased access to SNAP benefits for college students through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 for the duration of the public health crisis, allowing students who qualify for work study or for maximum financial aid to qualify without meeting additional “work-for-food” rules. Lawmakers should make these changes permanent and pass federal bills that would end these rules for college students with low incomes.

Senators Warren (D-MA), Murphy (D-CT), Padilla (D-CA), and Sanders (I-VT), along with Representatives Hayes (D-CT-05), Lawson (D-FL-05), and Torres (D-CA-35) recently introduced the Student Food Security Act of 2021. This bill would make the temporary SNAP student exemptions passed under the Consolidated Appropriations Act permanent. Even after the public health crisis ends, students with an Expected Family Contribution (EFC) of $0 (as determined by federal student aid rules), who are eligible for the full Pell Grant, or who are eligible for work-study programs could access SNAP as long as they meet the other income and program eligibility requirements. Independent students in households that are eligible for SNAP would also be eligible for food benefits. The bill would also increase outreach to eligible students and create pilot programs to allow students to use SNAP benefits in on-campus dining facilities and to address student basic needs more broadly.

The Enhance Access to SNAP (EATS) Act (H.R. 1919), introduced by Representative Gomez (D-CA-34), would add attending an institution of higher education as an exemption from the SNAP student requirements. Rather than having to prove that they were working on top of going to school, students would be eligible for SNAP through college enrollment, provided they meet the other SNAP income and eligibility criteria. CLASP strongly supports this legislation because it removes the harmful and burdensome “work-for-food” requirement for students. This bill also eliminates the documentation and paperwork requirements of students and agency staff for the existing SNAP student exemptions, which can prevent eligible students from receiving SNAP benefits. Students shouldn’t have to work while attending classes just to maintain access to their SNAP benefits.

Lawmakers can permanently remove the SNAP student “work-for-food” requirements by passing the EATS Act. The COVID-19 public health crisis underscored the urgency of providing food assistance to students and showed us how external factors can make it impossible for them to work through no fault of their own. College students shouldn’t have to balance working 20 hours per week while maintaining a full course load, family responsibilities, and their other commitments to access the SNAP benefits they are otherwise eligible for. And they shouldn’t be at risk of losing their nutrition benefits because their job offers them fewer hours or conflicts with a required course. We urge Congress to pass legislation to support students in completing their degrees, remove burdensome work requirements, and help end student hunger.