Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Facts on Food Stamp Work Requirements

The rhetoric has been heated on both sides of the aisle as House Republicans pursue a bill that would expand the work requirements necessary to be eligible for food assistance.

As a result of the GOP-proposed work requirements, 1.2 million fewer people a month would access Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps, by 2028, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office. In February, the most recent month for which we have figures, 40 million people received SNAP benefits, according to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.

Republican proponents tout the bill as a step toward moving people away from government dependence to work. Democratic opponents of the bill say it adds unnecessary layers of bureaucracy and will cause hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of the country’s most vulnerable citizens to go hungry.

The facts cited by the two sides appear to conflict wildly. Here we sort through some of the rhetoric from both sides.

What’s in the Bill?

The wholesale overhaul of the SNAP program is part of the latest farm bill, H.R. 2, the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, introduced by Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, who chairs the House Committee on Agriculture. The committee approved the bill, but it has not been voted on by the full House.

Under current SNAP rules implemented in 1996, able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs, between the ages of 18 and 49 are required to work at least 20 hours a week or participate in a qualified job-training or volunteer program in order to be eligible for more than three months of benefits over a three-year period. Benefits are cut off after three months if the work requirements are not met and the applicant has not received a waiver (more on those waivers later).

The proposed GOP law would raise the age of those subject to the work requirement from 49 to 59, and extend the work requirements to adults with children ages 6 and older. The minimum work required would rise to 25 hours per week in 2026.

According to CBO, 62 percent of the 1.2 million who would ultimately lose benefits would be able-bodied adults caring for children 6 or older. Another 27 percent would able-bodied adults between the ages of 50 and 59 without dependents (due to the age extension in the bill). And 11 percent of them would be able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents.

CBO estimates that, on average in 2028, those 1.2 million people would lose $1,816 in annual food assistance benefits.

In addition to the new work requirements trimming the ranks of SNAP recipients, CBO says another 400,000 households per year would lose eligibility due to a change that would cut off SNAP eligibility for those whose gross income exceeds 130 percent of poverty, instead of the 200 percent threshold for SNAP recipients in some states.

The bill would provide an additional $6.7 billion over the next 10 years for employment and training services — an amount CBO does not expect would fund enough job training for all who would be eligible for it under the new bill.

Even if the House passes the proposed bill as written, it is expected to have a much harder time passing with those same work rules in the Senate. Last week, the Wall Street Journal reported that President Donald Trump might threaten to veto the bill if it does not include tighter work restrictions.

What Is the Problem?

Republicans say: With today’s fast-growing economy, House Speaker Paul Ryan says the time is ripe to get able-bodied adults who receive food assistance “off of welfare, into the workforce.”

According to the Republicans on the House Committee on Agriculture, the SNAP program is “riddled with loopholes that create disincentives to work.” A spokesman for Conaway says that among able-bodied adults without dependents who receive federal food assistance, only 30 percent are working.

Rep. Warren Davidson from Ohio likened the situation to an unemployed friend who moves in with you.

“You’d be like, ‘Hey, man, I’m glad to help you out for a while, but are you going to go to any job interviews?'” Davidson said. “We would do that! And somehow, when the government does it, it’s mean. And we have to be willing to do what we would do even for our friends or we’re not going to get this spending under control.”

Democrats say: Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana calls the GOP bill “a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Richmond says: “The overwhelming majority … of able-bodied people on food stamps wake up and go to work.” Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota went one step further. “The number of people who could work and aren’t working on SNAP is a miniscule fraction, less than 1 percent.” (Smith’s office later told us she misspoke.)

The facts: Although the statistics used by Republicans and Democrats appear to contradict each other, they are actually different measures.

According to the USDA’s Food Nutrition Service, about 3.5 million SNAP participants in fiscal year 2016 were nondisabled adults living in a household without children. (See Table 3.3.) That’s a little different, but very similar to able-bodied adults without dependent children.

About 29.5 percent of those people were working (indicated by countable earned income), according to FNS. But FNS notes that among this group, “their wages are very low.” Among those who worked at least 20 hours per week, they earned about $1,000 a month — which puts them right at the federal poverty level.

Opponents of the GOP plan do not dispute that 30 percent figure, but argue that it is misleading because it shows a snapshot in time when people are most likely out of work, and have turned to SNAP because they are between jobs and need help.

“It is correct that approximately 30 percent of ABAWDS are working, but it is important to note that people often receive SNAP benefits during a particular period that they are not working,” Elaine Waxman, senior fellow in the Income and Benefits Policy Center at the Urban Institute, told us via email. “Often, if you look at people’s work histories the year before and the year after they are on SNAP, they were working during both of those years. Thus, a static snapshot doesn’t tell you the whole story about the use of SNAP and employment.”

Research by the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that nearly half of the adults who were not working in a month when they were participating in SNAP worked within a year. Of the remaining nonworking adults, “over one-third are unable to work due to caregiving responsibilities (most of whom have working spouses); about one-quarter have a work-limiting disability or chronic health condition, despite not receiving disability benefits; close to one-third report either going to school or being unable to find work; and the rest report other reasons, such as temporary inability to work,” according to testimony provided to a House subcommittee by Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In short, Dean said, “the numbers do not bear out the characterization that SNAP recipients are work avoidant.”

CBPP concluded that most parents who are able to work are working or are temporarily between jobs. In 62 percent of families with children and working-age, able-bodied adults, the adults worked in a typical month while receiving SNAP; 87 percent of such adults were employed in the year before or after SNAP receipt.

When Richmond says, “The overwhelming majority … of able-bodied people on food stamps wake up and go to work,” he’s pointing to that expanded definition of working, looking at whether people worked within a year of receiving benefits. In other words, SNAP is often used by people who are between jobs.

“Moreover, even though they’re referred to as able-bodied adults, it is important to recognize that there are still high levels of barriers to employment among this population, such as low education and serious health limitations,” Waxman said.

As for Smith’s claim — that “the number of people who could work and aren’t working on SNAP is … less than 1 percent” — her office acknowledges that’s incorrect.

Her spokesman, Michael Dale-Stein, said the senator misspoke. He noted that according to the Minnesota Department of Human Services there was an average of nearly 430,000 Minnesotans on SNAP per month in 2017, and of that number, fewer than 6,300 per month were able-bodied adults without dependents. That means about 1.5 percent of people using SNAP are required to work, Dale-Stein said.

Those are different statistics.

And the same Minnesota DHS report states that the number of able-bodied adults without dependents who receive SNAP benefits has shrunk dramatically since 2012, when the figure was 65,000 per month. That’s largely because in 2013 Minnesota dropped statewide waivers to the three-month time limit allowed during the recession. The Republican bill seeks to reduce those very kinds of statewide waivers.

Work Requirements

Democrats say: House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi says that “SNAP already has work requirements,” and that the Republican plan “will only create vast, untested, unworkable bureaucracies that will increase hunger and poverty across America.”

Republicans say: According to Conaway’s spokeswoman, SNAP “has work requirements, but these requirements are currently confusing, vague and ineffective and riddled with a series of loopholes that create disincentives to work.” She says roughly 35 percent of Americans live in an area with no food stamp work requirements, a statistic compiled by the Foundation for Government Accountability.

The facts: Under the current rules, people generally can be disqualified from the program if they fail to register for work (which is different than actually working), voluntarily quit a job or reduce hours, refuse to take a job offer or to participate in state-assigned employment and training programs.

There are stricter requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents. They are required to work or participate in a work program for at least 20 hours per week in order to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months in a 36-month period. There are exceptions for children, seniors, pregnant women, and for people with physical or mental health issues.

There are time-limit waivers available, however, in areas with persistently high unemployment. USDA states that during the recession, “many States qualified for and chose to waive time limits in all or part of the State.” According to the USDA, five entire states and parts of 28 others had time-limit waivers as of Jan. 8.

“Too many states have asked to waive work requirements, abdicating their responsibility to move participants to self-sufficiency,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement in February.

Although the proposed GOP legislation would continue to allow waivers in some high unemployment areas, it seeks to reduce the areas covered by waivers.

According to an aide in Conaway’s office, some states are taking advantage of a provision in current law that allows states to average the unemployment rates of several contiguous counties, and some states are grouping counties with very high unemployment with ones with lower unemployment so that all of the counties in the entire state can be waived.

But even without the Republican proposal, the number of waiver areas is shrinking. As the economy continues to improve, USDA states, “many places no longer qualify for time limit waivers, unless they have high unemployment or not enough jobs available.”

“Increasingly, these waivers are being removed as the economy improves,” said Waxman, the Urban Institute senior fellow. “But there continue to be some areas of the country where there may be an insufficient base of employment for many able-bodied adults to find work.”

How Would the Plan Affect Children and Seniors?

Democrats say: “[U]nder the GOP SNAP cuts — seniors, children, individuals with disabilities, our veterans — large numbers of our veterans — and hungry families will lose the means to put food on the table,” Pelosi said on April 19.

Republicans say: Under the GOP proposal, seniors and children are exempted from the work requirement. The only people who would lose benefits, Conaway said, are “work-capable adults” who are “self-selecting to remove themselves from the program” because they choose not to work.

The facts: Who’s right? The answer is somewhere in the middle.

While children and seniors would not have their benefits cut, Democrats say if a working-age adult loses benefits, that would reduce the food assistance to the household, and that could translate to less food for children or seniors living with adults who lose benefits.

Under the GOP bill, qualified seniors and children are still eligible for SNAP benefits, and, of course, they do not have work requirements to keep them.

As mentioned earlier, CBO says 1.2 million fewer people would receive SNAP benefits per month in 2028. Of those, 62 percent, or 744,000, are adults with dependent children over the age of 6.

According to Pelosi’s office, in 2016, “4 million children and 185,000 seniors lived with people subject to Republicans’ burdensome new work requirements. In 2021, those numbers would be 3.3 million children and 156,000 seniors, adjusted based on the CBO baseline. Less food on the table for many of these families is a clear repercussion of this bill.”

Pelosi spokesman Henry Connelly said: “Stripping SNAP benefits from a parent or caregiver means the whole family loses critical resources to put food on the table.”

An aide with the Republicans on the House Committee on Agriculture said ineligible adults taking food assistance meant for their child is against the rules. “If a household decides to do something that is less than honest, that is on them,” she said.

The Republican bill also takes aim at a perceived loophole created by automatic eligibility rules in some states that bypass an asset test.

An aide to Conaway pointed to the case of a Minnesota millionaire who testified before state lawmakers that he received SNAP food assistance for 19 months to prove a point. The man explained that he and his wife had little income during the 19 months they received aid, but he never had to provide information on the couple’s assets. The GOP plan seeks to eliminate that.

According to a fact sheet provided by the Republican staff of the House Committee on Agriculture, the GOP bill would eliminate the automatic eligibility provided by Broad Based Categorical Eligibility, but those who meet a revised asset test would remain eligible.

What about People with Disabilities?

Republicans say: Individuals with disabilities are exempt from the proposed work requirements, so none of them would lose SNAP benefits under the GOP plan.

Democrats say: The bill does not account for people with disabilities or chronic conditions who lack the necessary medical exemption or documentation, and, they say, those who can’t navigate the exemption process will lose SNAP benefits.

The facts: The bill specifically exempts from its work requirements those who are “medically certified as mentally or physically unfit for employment,” same as the current law.

Connelly, a spokesman for Pelosi, said the bill’s new reporting requirements will present hurdles for “people with disabilities who struggle to meet that exemption already.” Obtaining this documentation can be very difficult, he said, “especially for those who want to avoid the risk of being permanently ‘unfit’ for work instead of temporarily, or live in states where they do not have access to health coverage or their state does not provide access to transportation, personal care services, employment services, and more.”

“It may seem simple to assert that ‘people with disabilities will be exempt,’ but converting such a statement into an effective policy process is complicated, expensive, and fundamentally flawed,” the group Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities wrote in a letter sent to the House Committee on Agriculture. “Many people with disabilities receive SNAP, but do not meet SNAP’s statutory definitions of ‘disability’ or have not been so identified. Under SNAP, states have no obligation to help people prove they are exempt, even if they have difficulty obtaining the necessary records or verification from a doctor.”

As an example, the group points to a survey of SNAP participants in Franklin County, Ohio, which found that among able-bodied adults without dependents — those subject to work requirements/time limits — a third self-reported “some type of physical or mental limitation.”

“New reporting requirements would create major hurdles to benefits,” the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities wrote. “Proposed new reporting requirements related to eligibility, employment and training, and time limits would be extremely difficult for many people with disabilities to navigate and comply with.”
Will Kids Lose Free Lunch?

Democrats say:  According to Pelosi, “With one provision alone, just one of the provisions alone, hundreds of thousands of school-aged children will be kicked off free and reduced school lunch and breakfast initiatives.”

Republicans say: A spokeswoman for Conaway counters that the GOP bill “does not take away a child’s lunch.”

The facts:  Under the current law, many states offer what is called Broad Based Categorical Eligibility, which allows households that qualify for welfare benefits through the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to automatically qualify for SNAP. At the state’s option, that can include people with gross monthly income up to 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The GOP plan would limit categorical eligibility to households whose monthly income is no more than 130 percent of the federal poverty level.

As we said before, CBO estimates that in an average year, about 400,000 households would lose SNAP eligibility as a result of that change.

But the change would also affect children who are categorically eligible for free meals at school based on their eligibility for SNAP.

According to CBO, “If their households lost SNAP eligibility because of the revised threshold and their families were not otherwise eligible for free meals, those children would be eligible only for reduced-price or paid meals.”

CBO estimates that in an average year, about 265,000 children would lose access to free school meals under this provision.

James Ziliak, director of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, told us that because SNAP automatically confers eligibility for school breakfast and lunch, losing SNAP will likely mean that many children will lose school meal programs because of failing to fill out the paperwork.

“Whether you refer to it as ‘kicked off’ or failure to certify even though the child remains eligible, the end result is the same, and that is children will lose out on access to crucial nutrition assistance,” Ziliak said.