States Face Federal Food Assistance Cuts as Economy Improves

For as many as 1 million unemployed adults across the country, the federal food assistance clock is ticking. In January, work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults who receive federal SNAP benefits—formerly known as food stamps—were reinstated in 22 states across the country, following a temporary suspension of the requirements in recent years.  

Since the passage of welfare reform legislation in 1996, federal food assistance has been tied to employment for adults ages 18-49 who are able to work and who are not caring for a minor child or other dependent. Those recipients are limited to three months of SNAP benefits every three years, unless they are employed or participate in qualified job training or educational programs at least 80 hours per month.

The requirement was waived for most states, however, during the Great Recession, when jobs became scarce and unemployment rates rose.

To be eligible for a waiver, a state must prove that the state—or an area within it—has an unemployment rate of 10 percent, a surplus of workers or an unemployment rate 20 percent higher than the national average for two consecutive years.

As states’ economies have improved in recent months, many are becoming ineligible for the waiver. 

The reinstatement of the employment requirement either statewide or within a region in 22 states on Jan. 1 represented the largest group of states to re-impose the SNAP three-month time limit since the recession ended, according to the Associated Press. In six of these states—Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey and Tennessee—the measure was reinstated statewide, while in 16 other states, including Alabama, Connecticut, Kentucky, New York and Oregon, the requirement was reinstated for certain areas within the state that no longer meet eligibility requirements.

While nearly all of these states have re-imposed the SNAP work requirements for able-bodied, childless adults because they no longer qualify for waivers due to falling unemployment rates, three states—Mississippi, New Mexico and West Virginia—have elected to reinstate the time limits either statewide or in parts of their state despite their eligibility for a waiver, according to a January 2016 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, or CBPP. South Carolina has requested waiver coverage through March, after which it is expected to reinstate the work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries, despite qualifying for a waiver.

Across the country, more than 45 million individuals receive benefits through SNAP, a federal program run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered with the help of the states; however, the work requirement would apply to just under 5 million able-bodied adults without children living with them. 

But, according to the CBPP report, the impact will be significant as “at least 500,000 and as many as 1 million SNAP recipients will have their benefits cut off in 2016,” with an average monthly loss of $150 to $170 per person.

States that recently reinstated the time limit may be looking to states like Wisconsin, which re-imposed the time limit for beneficiaries of the state’s SNAP program—called FoodShare—through a state rule change in 2013 that went into effect in April 2015. 

“My budget changes the food stamp program so non-elderly, able-bodied adults will be required to be enrolled in employment training to receive food stamps,” said Gov. Scott Walker, announcing the rule change in 2013. “I’m all for providing a temporary hand up, but for those who are able-bodied, it should not be a permanent hand out. I care for the people of this state too much to force them to live a life of dependence on the government.” 

According to data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, more than 30,000 able-bodied, childless adults lost their FoodShare benefits between July and December 2015 as a result of the new time limit.

But some warn that the reduced participant rolls in the SNAP program, particularly in areas that may still qualify for the waiver, will have significant implications for community food banks and charities that service food insecure populations. 

Sherrie Tussler heads up the Hunger Task Force, a Milwaukee-area supplier of food pantries, soup kitchens and shelters with emergency food. In an op-ed published in December 2015 in theMilwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Tussler wrote that in communities like Milwaukee that have a labor surplus, the reinstatement of work requirements is having a significant impact on food banks.

“The lessons of mandating work have been painful here in Milwaukee,” wrote Tussler. “In the first three months after the change, 8,100 people have lost their food-buying power and are now lining up at the soup kitchen. Each month, another 2,700 are projected to join their ranks—human proof that mandating work does not result in employment. It also doesn't create jobs.”

Under the 1996 welfare reform law, states are encouraged—but not required—to offer SNAP participants at risk of losing their benefits a spot in an eligible job training program for at least 20 hours per week, but only a few do so. One of those states is Colorado, which provides employment training to able-bodied, childless adult SNAP participants through its Employment First program.

Until recently, nearly the entire state was covered by a time limit waiver, but those waivers recently expired in all but about 20 of the state’s 64 counties. “Colorado has about 15,000 (able-bodied adults without dependents) statewide receiving SNAP benefits in any given month prior to the waiver loss,” said Katie Griego, director of the Division of Employment and Benefits for the Colorado Department of Human Services. “We expect that number to decrease notably over the spring and summer months when time limits begin to take effect.”

Colorado Employment First provides both training and workfare options for participants in a variety of employment fields depending on where the participant lives and the work opportunities in that part of the state. “Prior experience in workfare allows participants to gain skills and recent work history, and ideally to transition into meaningful employment,” Griego said.

While in the short-term the program helps able-bodied, childless adults maintain food assistance benefits to meet their immediate needs, over the long-term the program aims to prepare participants for a future in the workforce.

“First, we want our individuals to receive the food and nutrition they need in order to be successful,” said Griego. “Secondary to that, but just as important, we want to make sure to have a program that is responsive to individualized needs and ultimately is lifting individuals out of poverty and into employment.”