SNAP Time Limits: Congress and States Should Commit to Supporting Individuals

By Helly Lee

As 2016 unfolds, over half a million people will lose access to food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as a result of time limits being re-imposed by states after the expiration of state-wide waivers that had discontinued these limits during the recession. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities the people who will be affected are among the poorest Americans – with an average income of $2,000 per year for a household of one in 2015 – who often don’t have access to any other income support programs.

The time limit applies to individuals between the ages of 18 and 49 (often referred to as Able Bodied Adults without Dependents or ABAWDs) who are not disabled and not caring for children, or otherwise exempt.  Such individuals are limited to 3 months of SNAP benefits in a 3-year period if they are not working or in a work training program for at least 20 hours a week.

This time limit is often mistakenly called a “work requirement,” but there is no requirement for states to offer employment or training opportunities to individuals subject to the time limit. Those who are willing to work but can’t find steady employment or a training opportunity will lose assistance regardless of their efforts. Only five states – Colorado, Delaware, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin – have committed to offering all those who are subject to the time limit a place in an employment training program. The burden falls directly on those facing the time limit to find work or job training even when there aren’t any jobs or training opportunities available. This is unfair. 

The time limits for this population have been in existence since welfare reform in 1996; however, many states have had waivers of these time limits due to high unemployment rates during and after the Great Recession. With state-wide waivers, individuals were not automatically cut off of SNAP after 3 months if they were not working or in a work training program for 20 hours a week. These statewide waivers have expired in nearly all states in 2016 (and some states have declined waivers for which they are eligible).  Therefore, unemployed and underemployed individuals will lose their benefits because of this time limit, regardless of whether they want to work, or despite their efforts in seeking employment.

In recognition of the disconnect in requiring individuals to obtain jobs or job training in order to maintain their nutrition benefits while states are not actually obligated to support this process, last year, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) introduced  H.R. 1025, the SNAP Work Opportunities Act.  Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced a companion bill, S. 2420, the SNAP Work Opportunities and Veteran Protection Act, in the Senate. The bills would exempt individuals from the time limit if states do not offer them a position in an employment or training program. This would be an important protection for individuals who are subject to the time limit and are unable to secure 20 hours of employment or job training on their own.

Tens of thousands of people have already lost food assistance in states that have begun to implement the three-month time limit and many more will continue to get cut off. For example, an estimated 50,000 individuals in Massachusetts and up to 30,000 individuals in Arkansas could be affected as their states have already begun to implement the time limit starting in January 2016. Cutting food assistance to those in the most dire situations is counterproductive and won’t make it easier for them to find work, nor would it serve as an incentive to work since many in this population are already extremely poor and face limited job prospects. Some may already be working but are not meeting the 20-hours-a-week requirement. Others may be looking for work but have not been able to gain employment and may need additional training. Individuals are already facing many barriers, and cutting off critical nutritional support will only exacerbate the struggles that millions are facing.

Congress should pass common-sense legislation to exempt individuals from the time limit if their state does not offer assistance to find employment or training activities. All states where ABAWD time limits are in effect should also commit to providing opportunities for clients subject to the time limit by connecting them with qualifying activities and taking up available federal funding to match state and local resources to provide employment and training activities.