At Least 500,000 to Lose Food Assistance

At Least 500,000 to Lose Food Assistance

More than 500,000 of the nation's poorest people will be cut off from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also known as SNAP or food stamps — over the course of 2016. That's because in 23 states, the program will reimpose a three-month limit on benefits for unemployed adults aged 18-49 who aren't disabled or raising minor children, as I explain (with several of my colleagues at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities) in a newly updated paper.

One of the harshest pieces of the 1996 welfare law, this provision limits such individuals to three months of SNAP benefits in any 36-month period when they aren't employed or in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week. This happens even in states that operate few or no work or training programs and fail to offer SNAP enrollees a spot in one — which is the case in most states. These individuals have their benefits cut off after three months regardless of how hard they're looking for work.

States can request a waiver from the federal government of this time limit in areas of high unemployment, and most have done so since the late 1990s. Most states waived the time limit statewide during the recession and slow recovery. But these statewide waivers are largely expiring as unemployment falls, leaving most states eligible to waive only counties with high unemployment.

This year, over 40 states will be enforcing the time limit, including the 23 that will be implementing it for the first time since before the recession. Several states, like Arkansas, Florida, Missouri, and North Carolina, are refusing to seek any waivers even for their high-unemployment areas that would continue to qualify for a waiver, exacerbating the impact of the time limit on their poor citizens.

While the economy has improved, the job market isn't back to full health, and job opportunities for these people are limited. SNAP participants subject to the three-month limit are more likely than other SNAP participants to lack basic job skills like reading, writing, and basic mathematics, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found. Many of the jobs being created in the recovery are low-paying and part-time — in some cases less than 20 hours a week — so some people who manage to find jobs may qualify for, and need, SNAP, yet they're still subject to the three-month limit.

SNAP is a critical stepping stone for millions of Americans, reducing hunger and helping them to make ends meet. In 2014, it helped more than 46 million low-income Americans to afford a nutritionally adequate diet in a typical month. Those subject to the time limit — including part-time workers, veterans, homeless adults, jobless workers who don't qualify for unemployment insurance, and people actively looking for work but who can't find a job — are very poor and typically qualify for no other assistance.

Congress should revise this broken rule. Cutting off food assistance to poor unemployed and underemployed workers doesn't help them find a job or secure more hours of work. No one should lose food assistance because they can't find a full-time job. 

Ed Bolen is a senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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