Kansas Time Limit on SNAP: Are People Really Better Off?

By Helly Lee

Work is important to helping lift people out of poverty—there’s no dispute about that.  However, the claims in a recent Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) report that individuals in Kansas were “freed from welfare” after they were subject to a time limit in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, are about as real as the stock photos and pseudonyms used to portray success stories in the report. Let’s break it down.

In SNAP, low-income adults ages 18-49 who do not have a mental or physical disability that would prevent them from working, do not live in households with children, or are not otherwise exempt (sometimes known as Able Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs), are subject to a three-month time limit on SNAP receipt.  Months when individuals are working at least 20 hours a week or are participating in a qualified employment or training program do not count toward this limit. Individuals who are subject to this time limit are diverse, with many cycling in and out of employment, while others have significant barriers to employment, such as limited education and skills, or learning disabilities.  What they have in common is deep poverty – among those who are not working at least 20 hours per week, their average annual income is just about $2,000 per year.

When states have high unemployment rates, they may be eligible for a waiver of the time limit, meaning that individuals are not automatically cut off if they are not in an employment or training activity, or are not working the required hours. During the recent recession, most states received state-wide waivers. As unemployment rates begin to decline, most states are no longer eligible for the waivers, but still can waive the time limit in areas of high unemployment. Some states, such as Kansas, have chosen to forgo the waiver even in areas where they would still qualify.

In 2013, Kansas re-implemented its time limit on SNAP throughout the state. The FGA report claims that nearly 60 percent of the 13,000 individuals affected “found employment within the first 12 months of being cut off and their incomes rose by an average of 127 percent.”  The report implies that this is because of the time limit. The reality is that many people turn to SNAP during brief periods of unemployment or under-employment, and would likely soon find work in any case. Across states, at least a quarter of households with childless adults work while receiving SNAP, and about 75 percent work in the year before or the year after receiving SNAP

What was even better, claims the report, was that “the average income among working able-bodied adults is now above the poverty line.” If that sounds too good to be true, that’s because it isn’t the entire picture. According to the report, incomes among those who exited SNAP in December 2013 due to the time limit and were still working a year later averaged just $3,326 in the last three months of 2014. The average quarterly wages of all individuals who were subject to the time limit and cut off of SNAP in December 2013 was a mere $1,390 a year later. Of those who found jobs, 51 percent remained below the poverty line and 30 percent remained in “severe poverty.” While some were able to find employment, many continued to struggle without employment or training opportunities, and with low wages.

Most people receiving SNAP want to work, and many already are working but in low-wage jobs. People want jobs that will provide a living wage that not just brings them above the poverty line, but allows them to thrive. Cutting people off of critical work supports, such as SNAP, is not the long-term solution needed to lift people out of poverty and support their success in the workforce. Losing a critical work support such as SNAP can exacerbate the struggles individuals who face the time limit are already experiencing and can make it harder to get back in the workforce, especially if states are not committed to providing employment and training opportunities. Our policymakers need to do more. For people subject to the time limit, states need to commit to offering quality employment and training programs that will help them access living wage jobs and truly be able to thrive in work and life.