One in seven Americans participates in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, receiving an average of $126 every month to buy groceries. Of these 42 million people, 2.8 million could stand to lose nutritional assistance under a new Trump administration rule, according to the United States Department of Agriculture. (Outside estimates go as high as four million.)
The Trump administration announced the proposed restrictions on the popular benefit program in December, targeting a small but still significant portion of the SNAP population: able-bodied adults without dependents, who qualify only through waivers. The comment period will remain open until the rule is published next month.
Although Republicans bill the change as a way to promote "self-sufficiency" among the unemployed, research shows the vast majority of this group does work—and for those who don't, cracking down on benefits is not likely to help. Here's why.
The Rule Would Make It Harder for States to Issue SNAP Waivers
Under SNAP requirements, non-disabled participants between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have children must work or participate in a work program at least 20 hours a week. States with high unemployment rates can waive these requirements to offer benefits anyway—and when the economy took a downturn, many of them did. Today, eight states and territories and parts of 28 more still offer waivers.
In keeping with the administration's war on public benefits, the new rule would make it harder for states to issue these waivers. These promised reforms include eliminating state-wide waivers without certain qualifications, limiting the length of waivers, and setting localized unemployment standards.
As seen in the farm bill fight, these reforms are controversial and historically unpopular. Democrats have already threatened legal action against the USDA, and the House Agriculture Committee plans to review the rules, Politico reports. But most importantly, the change also goes after a problem that critics say does not exist in the first place.
The Change Targets a Small Population That's Typically Working
According to the USDA, 74 percent of the program's 3.8 million able-bodied adults without dependents were unemployed in 2016. In a statement endorsing the new rule, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue emphasized the need to fix this. "Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream," he said. "As we make benefits available to those who truly need them, we must also encourage participants to take proactive steps toward self-sufficiency."
Perdue's claims perpetuate the "image of someone living in their mom's basement, collecting benefits," says Matthew Gritter, political science professor and welfare reform expert. "He was using the traditional rhetoric of personal responsibility—making an argument that's often made [in America]: If someone can work, they should be working."
In reality, this group includes many people who have trouble finding work not because of personal failures, but because of limited access to services: people with addictions, criminal records, and disabilities or health problems, who nevertheless did not qualify for disability assistance. Others are full-time students and caregivers.
Despite the administration's claims, research shows that those who can work do so, even without a stable job. A report from the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution finds that, while participants may not meet the work requirement some weeks, they might the next. As Dwyer Gunn wrote for Pacific Standard in August:
Many of these adults, however, transition frequently between working more than 20 hours a week (the minimum number of working hours required for SNAP eligibility in the House's proposed legislation), working less than 20 hours a week, being unemployed, or being out of the labor force altogether.
Research Shows SNAP Participation Does Not Disincentive Work
Critics of SNAP have also argued that welfare programs create a disincentive for participants to work. The data, however, says otherwise.
One 2013 study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that the program has not only improved participants' nutrition, but also supported work. Report author Dorothy Rosenbaum writes: "The overwhelming majority of non-disabled, working-age households that start receiving SNAP do not stop working. In the mid-2000s, only 4 percent of SNAP households that worked in the year before starting to receive SNAP did not work in the following year."
And that grifter living in his mother's basement? He wouldn't be making much anyway, since SNAP only brings participants up to 20 percent below the poverty line. "It is hard to imagine that this has a large work disincentive effect, because the benefit is just so small," Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, then-director of the Hamilton Project, said in 2016.
While reducing unemployment is important, it's unclear that kicking participants off SNAP or requiring them to work more will have the desired result. As results from other programs show, "work requirements rarely lead to significant increases in meaningful employment, and often result in increased poverty for those who lose benefits without increasing earnings," Brynne Keith-Jennings and Raheem Chaudhry wrote in a 2018 report for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Without waivers, this group is particularly vulnerable. They don't qualify for other programs like welfare, and "they have no real constituency," Gritter says. Poor, able-bodied single people do not elicit as much sympathy as other SNAP recipients, such as families, might among legislators and the public, but this group is growing every day, he says.
"Moving people to work is common-sense policy, particularly at a time when the unemployment rate is at a generational low," Perdue said in his statement. But that could change any year. And when it does, states will find it harder to step in.
*Update—January 11, 2019: This post has been updated with the correct spelling of Brynne Keith-Jennings' name.