SNAP Time Limits Can Reduce Access for Disabled People

By Ashley Burnside

This year, Congress has a big opportunity to promote positive policies in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) through the Farm Bill reauthorization. But some policymakers have threatened to implement policies that would make SNAP food benefits harder to access for certain groups, including the disabled community. 

SNAP, which provides monthly food benefits to individuals and families with low incomes, is one of our nation’s most effective anti-hunger public programs. SNAP is an important benefit for people with disabilities. Ten percent of the program’s non-elderly recipients identify as having a disability, and disabled people are more likely to face food insecurity. But SNAP can be hard to access for disabled people, and a time limit further restricts access for recipients known as “able-bodied adults without dependents”—or ABAWDs. 

Under current law, ABAWDs can only access SNAP for three months in a three-year period unless they are working for at least 80 hours per month. Lawmakers have created exceptions for areas with high unemployment rates and where time limit waivers are in place. SNAP benefits are cut off after three months even if recipients are still experiencing food insecurity and face barriers to obtaining employment. Lawmakers have proposed expanding the population that would fall under the ABAWD category and who would therefore need to meet this work requirement.  

The ABAWD acronym implies that only able-bodied adults must meet the work requirement or face a time limit. But people with disabilities can also be negatively impacted by this policy because it can be challenging for them to prove they have a qualifying disability that prevents them from working and meeting the SNAP work requirement.  

SNAP policy requires recipients to be “physically or mentally unfit for employment” to qualify for an exemption from the time limit. The federal regulatory language for being “unfit” requires states to exempt people who:  

1. receive public or private disability benefits; 

2. are perceived as obviously “unfit” for employment by the program caseworker at the state agency; or 

3. have documentation from a qualifying medical professional stating they are “unfit” for employment.  

Each of these criteria can be challenging for people with disabilities to meet for the following reasons:  

1. Applying for and receiving disability benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), is a long and cumbersome process. The application to receive disability benefits can take many months and can require a lawyer. In addition, the Social Security Administration is understaffed and underfunded, causing delays and customer service hiccups. Even if someone is considered ‘disabled enough’ to qualify for disability benefits, they may not be able to make it through the challenging application process to ultimately receive them.

2. A person may not be deemed ‘disabled enough’ to qualify for an exemption from the SNAP work requirement and time limit, depending on a caseworker’s perceptions, stereotypes, and awareness of disabilities and chronic illnesses. Caseworkers may be biased by their lack of understanding of disabilities and how they function. This is especially true if the person has an invisible disability, like chronic pain or autism spectrum disorder, which is harder for others to observe. The caseworker’s perceptions may also be biased based on the recipient’s other identities, including race and gender. For example, caseworkers may minimize a Black applicant’s reported pain more than someone who is white due to their internal biases.

3. Accessing medical documentation proving your disability for an exemption from SNAP time limits can be challenging. Securing medical documentation of your disability requires numerous health appointments, access to transportation, and health insurance. If you have a chronic illness, like Long COVID, it can be harder to secure a diagnosis from a medical provider and may require getting an appointment at a specialty clinic, which may have a months’ long waitlist. In addition, people with invisible disabilities and illnesses may face bias from medical providers who don’t believe their reported symptoms of pain. Research shows that women and people of color are more likely to face bias and skepticism from medical providers.  

Disabled people risk losing food assistance when lawmakers enforce time limits or work requirements, even when exemptions are included for people with disabilities. Work requirements don’t work and will not lead to better economic opportunities or help eradicate food insecurity. Lawmakers should eliminate work requirements and time limits from SNAP—not expand the population that would be affected by them.