The Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018 (H.R. 2), which the House is set to vote on this week, would impose harsh new work requirements on the nation’s largest and most effective anti-hunger program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Access to an adequate, healthy diet is crucial for families with children: it improves health outcomes for pregnant women and their children, helps to ensure that infants and toddlers meet developmental milestones and is essential for success in school. SNAP currently serves one in four children in the United States; it lifts almost five million children out of poverty and reduces food insecurity by one-third among children who receive it.
The House farm bill imposes sweeping new work requirements that for the first time mandate work for families with school-aged children and older adults. Under current law, states are already required to impose work requirements on “able bodied adults without dependents,” or people aged 18 to 49 who are not raising a minor child. This work requirement already has dire consequences: according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), at least half a million very poor adults lost SNAP benefits as a result of the work requirement in 2016.
The current version of the farm bill requires that parents with school-aged children and older adults between the ages of 49 and 60 also prove on a monthly basis that they are either working and/or participating in a qualifying job training program for 20 hours a week. There are limited exemptions to the proposed requirement and CBPP estimates that in 2021 up to 8 million people might be subject to it, including more than 2 million parents.
Work requirements have no place in a program meant to fight hunger and support the health and well-being of children and families. As decades of experience with work requirements under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program have shown, work requirements in and of themselves do little to actually increase work or wages in the long term.
Education and training programs – not work requirements – can have lasting benefits, but the farm bill does not provide enough funding for such programs. If SNAP work programs’ per-participant costs approximated that of education and training under TANF, they would cost more than $1.2 billion per month, which translates to $15 billion per year or $150 billion over 10 years. The farm bill, by contrast, allots only $7.65 billion over 10 years in federal funding for these new work programs. States are unlikely to be able to fund the difference, even if they wanted to. The result, instead, will likely be that SNAP participants are funneled into under-resourced programs that do little to help them find good jobs.
Instead of leading to more meaningful work, the SNAP work requirement will simply result in more paperwork. To enforce the new work requirements, states will have to build expensive systems to track SNAP participants every month. The burden of proving that they meet work requirements will fall on participants. SNAP recipients who work low-paying jobs with unstable work hours might be unable to anticipate a shortage of work hours in any given month, until it is too late to add additional work hours. Workers with multiple employers, self-employed individuals and anyone who is searching for work or participating in job training will have a hard time documenting their hours.
Tracking work participation will be especially difficult for the families who need nutritional assistance most – including homeless families, families with mental and physical health problems and families with significant caregiving responsibilities. Indeed, many caregivers and people with physical and mental health conditions who should be exempt from the requirements will have trouble navigating the exemption processand effectively advocating their case if they are incorrectly assessed by a caseworker.
The result will be that families will lose much-needed assistance. As the experience under TANF shows, families sanctioned for failing to meet work requirements are disproportionately families of color and families facing multiple barriers – including homelessness, chronic illness, addiction, language barriers and physical and intellectual disabilities. If work requirements are expanded in SNAP, these same families are likely to see their benefits cut and food insecurity rise.
Indeed, communities of color that face racial discrimination and have higher rates of unemployment even when the economy is otherwise doing well, are especially likely to face sanctions under the SNAP work requirement proposal. Under current and proposed law, areas with high unemployment may receive waivers from the work requirement. But people of color are often less likely to live in the rural areas that qualify for waivers. The result will be that people of color may be more likely to be subject to work requirements than white people. We see this exact problem playing out now with the proposed Medicaid work requirement in Michigan.
All told, the farm bill may lead almost 1 million households to lose their SNAP benefits altogether or see them reduced, according to CBPP. When 60 percent of families with children receiving SNAP already work, a “work requirement” that simply makes it more difficult to put food on the table is the last thing they need.
Elisa Minoff is a policy analyst and Valery Martinez is a Emerson National Hunger Fellow at CSSP