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Welfare program to expand work requirement

Reformers argue the new rules don’t go far enough


Welfare program to expand work requirement

Starting Friday, able-bodied adults who receive food stamps will have to begin following a new requirement that they work or try to work until age 55 instead of age 50. The change applies to about 750,000 participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program who will need to start a job search or join a workforce training program in order to keep their welfare benefits. Congress passed changes to the food stamp program known as SNAP in the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023. President Joe Biden signed the law, designed to lift the federal debt ceiling, in June. It included raising the work requirement age limit of 49 to 54, which will be implemented gradually over the next year.

Lawmakers included several new exceptions with the age limit hike. Under the new provisions, set to expire in 2030, homeless people, veterans, and adults under age 25 who were previously in foster care are exempt from SNAP’s work requirements. The law also limits states’ leeway to exempt able-bodied residents from work requirements or roll over unused exemptions to the next year.

Critics of stricter work requirements decry what they see as burdensome restrictions on a vulnerable population. Some of the headlines read, “House Republicans explore a new way to punish low-income, aging Kansans seeking food,” “SNAP under siege,” and “Nearly 750,000 could lose SNAP federal food assistance after debt ceiling deal, research shows.”

Proponents of the changes say they are small attempts to reform a program that keeps expanding even amid record-low unemployment and labor shortages. When Congress reconvenes next month to negotiate the farm bill, reform-minded advocates hope to keep the conversation about incentivizing employment front and center.

“​The actual changes that are happening on Sept. 1 from the debt ceiling bill are very, very minor,” said Floyd Buford, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability. The small changes will do little to counteract the program’s recent expansion during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, Biden gave SNAP the biggest increase in the program’s history: $36.24 more per person per month to account for inflation and changes in American consumption patterns. Pandemic emergency allotments further boosted benefits, though most of those ended with the public health emergency in May.

Federal law requires states to request waivers from the federal government in order to suspend SNAP work requirements in times of economic downturn. But during the pandemic, the federal government granted a blanket waiver under the public health emergency, allowing states to eliminate requirements for months or even years.

Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said the emergency provisions “went on for way too long” and changed SNAP in “fundamental ways.” More people are participating in SNAP than ever before as a direct result of the pumped-up benefits, Rachidi said. The program now serves about 42 million people, an increase of roughly 6 million between 2019 and 2023. Heightened participation and benefit hikes escalated expenditures. What was about a $63 billion program in 2019 now costs about $127 billion.

“SNAP generally declines when you have a strong economy,” Rachidi said. “We still have historically low unemployment rates, and yet SNAP participation continues to increase.” Nor has a parallel reduction in food insecurity accompanied the program’s massive growth, she argued, pointing to government data.

Today, SNAP benefits average about $182 per person per month. Under general work requirements, able-bodied individuals aged 16 to 59 who are not caring for a child under age 6 or an incapacitated person must work or participate in a training program. A laundry list of exceptions means very few people who fit this category must meet the general requirements.

The September changes also require able-bodied adults without dependents to work, volunteer, or participate in a work training program for 80 hours a month in order to receive SNAP for more than three months out of three years. The requirements do not apply to people already excused from the general work requirements.

“The reality of these changes is, this isn’t [affecting] remotely as many people as generally assumed,” said Brian Greene, CEO of the Houston Food Bank. “But the impact on those people is pretty scary.” The food bank serves 18 counties and about 1,600 partner organizations. Greene said the added requirements, combined with cuts in emergency allotments, significantly affect some people. He worries the food bank won’t be able to make up the difference.

Critics of strengthening work requirements also argue that most able-bodied SNAP recipients are already working, citing U.S. Census Bureau data that 4 out of 5 SNAP households contain a working adult.

But Rachidi pointed out that data sources and definitions of “employed” can easily skew this number. High employment rates utilize a broad definition that includes any employment in the past year, employment while the individual wasn’t receiving SNAP benefits, or as little as one hour of work per week. U.S. Census Bureau sources like the Current Population Survey and the American Community Survey don’t ask recipients whether they were working while on SNAP.

Instead, Rachidi relies on SNAP administrative data that contain detailed economic and demographic information from samples of households across all 50 states. This data reveal that 71 percent of SNAP households do not contain a worker, while 23 percent have an individual who works part-time and only 6 percent have someone who works full-time.

Buford, at the Foundation for Government Accountability, views the age expansion as a step toward incentivizing work. But he said the new exceptions for the homeless—a category that is rather vaguely defined in the law—and others have the potential to “end up outweighing the good effects of the age increase.” The Congressional Budget Office estimated about 78,000 more people would join the program than would lose eligibility as a result of the exemptions, an overall increase of about 0.2 percent.

Buford applauds the attempt to rein in states’ ability to exempt some of the able-bodied population from work requirements. The new law lowers discretionary exemptions from 12 percent of a state’s caseload to 8 percent and prevents states from rolling these exemptions over from year to year.

“There are a lot of people who really do need welfare benefits who can’t provide for themselves,” said Buford. “It is not compassionate, in my opinion, to give benefits to people who could be providing that for themselves.”

Congress will reconvene next month and begin negotiations to renew the farm bill, a hodgepodge of policies that include provisions about SNAP. “We kind of got what we could get in the debt ceiling,” Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., told Politico. “I think we’re gonna continue working, whether it’s [appropriations], farm bill, or others to keep building on it.”

James Whitford, the executive director of Watered Gardens, a rescue mission in Joplin, Mo., hopes lawmakers go much further in reforming SNAP during the coming negotiations. He testified before Congress in April about the dangers of expanding SNAP.

At Watered Gardens, staff help residents break their dependency on welfare programs. Whitford said that, before the COVID-19 pandemic, Watered Gardens helped about 60 percent of homeless guests in its emergency shelter get jobs. Now that number has fallen to about 30 percent as fewer clients want to work.

“We are created in the image of a God who is a creator. He’s a producer. And so all people, in order to be really, truly fulfilled, they have to be contributors,” said Whitford. Charity that’s only about receiving, “does not respect the inherent dignity of the Imago Dei,” he said.

Addie Offereins

Addie is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty fighting and immigration. She is a graduate of Westmont College and the World Journalism Institute. She lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband, Ben.

You sure do come up with exciting stuff to read, know, and talk about. —Chad

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