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Do Food Stamps Really Discourage Work?

Hundreds of thousands of the poorest Americans will lose their food stamps this year. What will become of them?
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(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

(Photo: John Moore/Getty Images)

In 2014, almost one in seven Americans received nutritional benefits, popularly known as "food stamps," through the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program. The program, which lifted 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2014, is one of the only federal assistance programs available to healthy adults without dependents, and the evidence increasingly indicates that it was a crucial stabilizer during the Great Recession, when many states actually dropped needy families from the welfare rolls.

But now, an estimated 500,000-1,000,000 Americans will lose their SNAP benefits, a result of a provision in the 1996 welfare reform law that imposed a variety of work requirements on SNAP recipients. A major goal of the 1996 reforms was to eliminate the work disincentives that many believed were built into America's social safety net. While the law focused primarily on TANF (the cash assistance programs for families with children), it also imposed a work requirement on SNAP benefits: Able-bodied adults without dependents are now only eligible to receive food stamps for three months out of every 36 months, unless they are either working or participating in a qualified job-training program.

Throughout the economic slowdown, most states took advantage of a waiver provision in the law that allowed them to suspend the three-month time limit during periods of particularly high unemployment. As the economy recovered, however, the waivers have begun to expire—2016 will, for the first time since the recession began, bring a time limit into effect in counties across 40 states, 23 of which will implement the limit for the first time since before the recession. It's unlikely that the hundreds of thousands of the poorest Americans who will be newly subject to the time limit in 2016 will manage to find a job, or a qualifying substitute, before their benefits expire, plunging many of them into food insecurity.

"Taking away this meager benefit, it would be surprising to me if we then saw a big response of people working."

Back in 1996, the provision's authors insisted that the rule wasn't designed to kick people off food stamps, but rather to eliminate work disincentive effects. "So if you are able-bodied and there are jobs available, you go and you have to work 20 hours to get your food stamps," said then-Congressman John Kasich when arguing for the amendment. "Then of course if you cannot find a job then you do workfare.... Or you can be in job training."

Unfortunately, finding slots in workfare or job training programs isn't quite as straightforward as the amendment's sponsors implied. The law doesn't require states to provide workfare or job training slots to employment-seeking welfare recipients, and most states don't—in fact, in 2016, only five states have committed to providing workfare or job training placements to all healthy, childless adults in danger of losing their SNAP benefits. And unlike most other federal safety net programs, hours spent job searching do not count toward the work requirement.

"We always refer to this as a time limit, not a work requirement, because it limits food assistance to individuals who can't find 20 hours of work or training on their own, no matter how hard they try," says Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "The state doesn't have to offer anything, and in many cases states don't offer anything, or they might have a small training program in a couple of places that can provide 100 slots, or 200 slots. If somebody shows up, and the program is full, that person is out of luck—there's no good cause or no exemption for them. They get cut off."

While the work incentive effects of welfare have been extensively studied, it's not actually clear that food stamp benefits provide any work disincentives, particularly among non-disabled adults without dependents. Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution, is skeptical that SNAP benefits today provide much in the way of work disincentives for healthy, childless adults.

"For able-bodied adults, if you're getting the maximum benefit, the amount that you get would prop you up to an income level that is 20 percent of the poverty line, so this is just not that much money," says Schanzenbach, who, in 2012, co-authored a paper that found modest work disincentives from the food stamp program's initial rollout in the 1960s and '70s. "It is hard to imagine that this has a large work disincentive effect, because the benefit is just so small."

Able-bodied adults without children who receive SNAP benefits represent a group of Americans who are particularly poor, even more so than other SNAP recipients, according to recent Department of Agriculture data. "What's interesting here is that such a large proportion of this group has no income," says Karen Cunnyngham, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research who worked on the USDA report. "Some of them just aren't bringing in any income."

They are also overwhelmingly likely to be poorly educated and lacking in useful job skills, a type of worker to whom the recent economic recovery has been particularly unkind.

"When we're talking about this population, they've got low levels of skill, and the job market is still soft. They're the first fired and the last to be re-hired," Schanzenbach says. "Taking away this meager benefit, it would be surprising to me if we then saw a big response of people working. The reason that these people are not working is not because they're saying 'Oh gosh, I don't want to lose my food stamp benefits.'"

For the men and women who will lose their benefits in 2016, the SNAP "work requirements" have resulted in precisely what the provision's opponents warned against back in 1996: hunger, insecurity, and instability, even among recipients willing and eager to work.