A brief rant about SNAP/Food Stamp work requirement whining

A brief rant about SNAP/Food Stamp work requirement whining December 5, 2019

from https://www.flickr.com/photos/chrstphre/5489717927

In the news today:  “Feds tighten work rules for food stamps: 688,000 adults could lose benefits

The Trump administration on Wednesday announced changes to the federal food stamp program that will make it harder for states to exempt adults from the program’s work requirements, a move it expects will cause 688,000 people nationwide to lose their benefits. . . .

Those affected by the changes announced Wednesday are able-bodied adults under age 50 without children or other dependents, a group that represents about 7% of the 36 million people nationwide using the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called SNAP. Children, the elderly and people with disabilities — who make up the vast majority of SNAP participants — are not affected.

Effective April 1, many of those able-bodied recipients across the country will be limited to three months of food aid over a three-year period unless they are working, in job training or participating in volunteer opportunities for at least 80 hours a month. The work requirements have existed since the mid-1990s, but many states receive waivers for counties with higher unemployment rates or where jobs are scarce. The new rule makes those waivers harder to get.

About 140,000 of the 1.8 million individuals who receive food stamps in Illinois fit the definition of able-bodied adult. The state’s Department of Human Services, which adamantly opposes the rule, is working on calculating how many of those people are not working and are at risk of losing benefits.

. . . state officials worry it could leave many people worse off. Many food stamp recipients who don’t work face barriers that make it difficult to land or keep a job, such as little education and skills, criminal backgrounds that make it tough to get hired, transportation hurdles or an undiagnosed disability. . . .

To that end, the state has established specialty teams at its local offices to connect people to work or training activities. It also has expanded supportive services that help pay for transportation and work uniforms, and has developed a referral network with the Illinois departments of Employment Security and Economic Opportunity, and the Illinois Community College Board.

So why don’t these able-bodied food stamp recipients work?

Here’s what I understand to be the case based on a variety of reading in the past.  Even when jobs are available:

Some folks are disabled.

Some folks are eligible for other exceptions (e.g., a caregiver to a child or an incapacitated person).

Some can’t find jobs due to convictions.

Some are addicts.

Some can’t manage transportation to a potential job.

Some are working already, but under the table.

And some are simply wholly disconnected from the labor force.

But look at who’s exempt from the work requirements (from the Minnesota Department of Human Services):

  • Anyone deemed “unfit for employment.”  It is not required that one be deemed “disabled” according to the tight Social Security disability definition; rather, there are multiple ways of qualifying, including a legitimate doctor’s note certifying a mental or physical illness, documentation of an injury or surgery/recuperation from surgery, or homelessness.
  • Anyone caring for an incapacitated person for more than 20 hours per week.  The incapacitated person does not need to be living in the same household, and extensive proof is not required, just a statement of the name of the person receiving care, and the number of hours involved.
  • Anyone caring for a child under age 6 for more than 20 hours per week.  Again, this does not need to be one’s own child, and the child does not need to live in one’s own home; a grandmother caring for a grandchild would count, too, and more than one person can count per child.
  • Anyone participating in a drug addiction or alcohol treatment program, with no minimum hours required (but AA and NA don’t count).
  • Anyone in a school or training program (students in higher education must also be employed for 20 hours/week).

As to the work requirements themselves, there are two components.  The first is the “General Work Requirements” which involve “registering for work” and participating in a training program if available or accepting a suitable job if offered.  The second involves the actual work itself, which requires one of the following:

Work at least 80 hours a month. Work can be for pay, for goods or services (for something other than money), unpaid, or as a volunteer;


Participate in a work program at least 80 hours a month. A work program could be SNAP Employment and Training or another federal, state, or local work program

or some combination of the two, or

Participate in workfare for the number of hours assigned to you each month (the number of hours will depend on the amount of your SNAP benefit.)

And the “volunteer work” is fairly broad.  It is not necessary that one volunteer for a specially-approved agency.  I couldn’t find much that’s Illinois-specific, but Legal Aid of West Virginia spells out that any “non-profit, charity, or religious charity” would count.

So who would fall through the cracks here?  I suppose there are some outstanding issues around people who cannot find drug treatment programs, though the answer is to beef up funding for these programs, or possibly create an exemption for “on a waitlist for a program” (if that’s not already included in the general “incapacitated” category).  Perhaps in rural areas there’s no means of performing volunteer work for a recognized charity (though surely in most cases the local church could find some activity for which they could sign off on 20 hours per week).  Perhaps there are some who are so disconnected from the community that they can’t find anyone for whom they can perform volunteer service.

But how many such people are there?  How often is it more a matter of the sort of person who simply can’t get his act together even to the minimal amount needed to show up for 20 hours, who wouldn’t qualify as an addict in need of rehab but nonetheless spends his days high or drunk?

And that’s where the bottom line to this whole debate lies.  In the case of someone who will not meet these requirements, even at the minimum level of volunteering somewhere for 20 hours a week, should they continue to receive food benefits?  I know there are plenty of people who say, “we shouldn’t let people go hungry no matter what,” but it looks a lot less like “keeping people from starving” and a lot more like “keeping people in their state of disconnection,” to no long-term good.

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