Work requirements won’t lead to better employment or economic outcomes

By Parker Gilkesson and Teon Hayes 

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) and 14 other Republicans introduced a harmful bill yesterday that would raise the age of people subject to time limits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and expand them to parents of children ages 7-17. The bill would also limit state flexibility in waiving time limits. These proposals are counterproductive to and undermine the mission of ending food insecurity. 

Currently, working-age adults ages 18-49 without children—known as “able-bodied adults without dependents,” or ABAWDs—are subject to a time limit: they must work 80 hours per month or they can only receive three months of SNAP benefits over a three-year period. The Republican proposal would raise the upper age limit to 65 and apply it to parents and caregivers. This proposal would affect at least 5 million additional adults including parents of over 10 million school-aged children

Time limits are currently suspended because of the COVID-19 public health emergency, but these will be reinstated in May. The Republican proposal claims that states have abused their right to waive time limits during periods of high employment, but we have no evidence for this.  States may waive the time limit in times of economic distress, but multiple states have adopted policies that prohibits them from requesting waivers regardless of economic distress. 

This bill is expected to be one of many attempts to lower nutrition spending and kick people off SNAP. Expanded work requirements and time limits are a familiar line of attack on the program and will play a prominent role in this year’s debate on SNAP benefit levels and policies as part of the Farm Bill reauthorization.  CLASP and the Community Partnership Group advocate for a total end to on time limits in SNAP as one of our key priorities for making SNAP an anti-racist and equitable program.   

Work requirements, do not lead to permanent employment or long-term economic stability. Rigorous evidence shows that implementing time limits causes people to stop receiving benefits; it does not increase employment.  It is therefore harmful to recipients who are unable to comply with these requirements.   

Over the years, members of both political parties have used racist, sexist, or xenophobic stereotypes, false narratives about who’s deserving and undeserving, and rhetoric about the “ dignity of work,” to cut funding for public benefits programs. The strategic deployment of these narratives is affirmed by public opinion data that confirms white Americans are more likely to favor benefit cuts when they believe that their status is threatened and that people of color are the main beneficiaries of public benefits programs. Legislators have driven the narrative that people need to be forced to work to encourage support for harsher work requirements, which result in caseload reduction, but not in poverty reduction.  

The reality is that lack of access to food and proper nutrition exacerbates stress, anxiety, and depression, impairs cognitive functioning, causes sleep disturbances and fatigue, and other conditions that are a significant barrier to finding a job, keeping a job, or getting training to improve wages.  

Lessons learned from TANF, SNAP, and other programs demonstrate that work requirements are not effective in connecting people to living-wage jobs. Work requirements are not only ineffectual but have opportunity costs: the time that a SNAP recipient loses in low-intensity programs or low-wage jobs simply to meet requirements could have been spent obtaining skills and credentials, finding a quality job, and increasing their earnings.  

A much better focus for public policy is to invest in strategies that support people to develop skills and access training that prepares them for jobs that pay living wages and foster an economy that creates more quality jobs with fair wages. This is where programs such as voluntary SNAP Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) can make a huge difference.  

Voluntary E&T programs have the potential to enhance the economic security of SNAP participants. Research indicates that certain voluntary programs have effectively raised employment and earnings rates. When designed and implemented intentionally, these programs can offer access to supportive services, such as child care, transportation, and subsidies for necessary tools and uniforms, enabling individuals to pursue, obtain, and retain employment.  

Unlike work requirements in most public assistance programs, SNAP time limit rules do not require states to offer options for meeting work requirements before cutting people off benefits. Historically, most states have chosen not to help people subject to the time limit find qualifying work or training activities. Many individuals will lose SNAP if they cannot find a qualifying activity on their own.  

Work requirements also do not take into consideration the barriers to employment that people face in the current economy—which predate the COVID-19 pandemic. Work requirements have a disproportionate impact on different populations including communities of color, immigrants, non-custodial parents, formerly incarcerated people, and people with disabilities. Because of persistent racial economic disparities and discrimination, people of color face considerable employment challenges and higher unemployment.  

We know that SNAP is one of the antidotes to helping people experiencing poverty to become more employable and increase wages.  The SNAP program has also been shown to stimulate economic growth, improve academic outcomes, and improve health outcomes.  

Implementing more strenuous work requirements has no bearing on a person’s work ethic or desire to work. The reality is that most people receiving SNAP do work, and if we want to help SNAP participants get access to jobs, restricting access to benefits won’t help.  It’s time for legislators to stop using deservingness and the “dignity of work” in public benefits as a political guise to garner support for budget cuts. If we know we work requirements don’t work, why are we still allowing this discussion?  

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