Recently the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released final rules that strengthen work requirements for non-disabled people without dependents who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps. These rules are consistent with longstanding federal policy — in both SNAP and the cash welfare Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program — of expecting work-capable adults to work instead of depending solely on government assistance. Currently, unemployment is low and wages are rising fastest for people in entry-level jobs, providing an opportune time to help more adults in low-income households improve their financial well-being by strengthening work requirements in SNAP.
The new rules center on who can be exempt from an existing SNAP requirement that certain recipients work in order to receive benefits for an extended period of time. The rule applies to a group called “able-bodied adults without dependents” or ABAWDs. As that title suggests, people in this group are able to work, are working age (18-50), don’t have disabilities, and don’t have dependents — people who are considered to be the most work-ready. Overall, only 3 million of the 18 million households that currently collect SNAP benefits include one or more ABAWDs. The remaining households, including children, seniors (in fact, anyone over age 50), people with disabilities, or people caring for dependents are unaffected by the ABAWD work requirement and the new rules.
Following welfare reforms enacted in 1996, federal law has required ABAWDs to work, train, or participate in approved volunteer programs for 20 hours per week in order to receive SNAP benefits (then called food stamps) for longer than three months in a three-year period. But exceptions have always been made for people living in areas with high unemployment, allowing states to “waive” the requirement when certain economic conditions are met, including a recent unemployment rate at least 20 percent higher than the national average for a 2-year period.
In recognition of the difficult job market during the Great Recession, ABAWD requirements were waived in all states as part of the federal stimulus legislation in 2009. But after the economy recovered and unemployment fell to historic lows, some states still found ways to maintain their ABAWD waivers, using tactics such as combining distant jurisdictions while excluding low unemployment areas in order to meet the waiver criteria. Meanwhile the plummeting national unemployment rate made the “20 percent higher than the national average” standard for a waiver less meaningful. Indeed, according to a Foundation for Government Accountability August 2019 report, “the average unemployment rate in currently waived jurisdictions sits at just 4.5 percent,” below what most experts would consider a weak labor market. As a result, the USDA reported in 2018 that nearly half of ABAWDs receiving SNAP lived in waived areas, and currently 36 states (including Washington DC and the Virgin Islands) claim full- or partial-state waivers from the work requirement for ABAWDs.
Illinois is a good example of how states have gerrymandered the waiver process to exempt ABAWDs, even during good economic times. For a previously approved waiver application, Illinois grouped all counties in the state together as an “economic area” — with the exception of low-unemployment DuPage County — in order to expand the total area that qualified for a waiver. Most Illinois counties would not qualify for a waiver on their own due to favorable economic conditions, and “71 of the state’s 101 waived counties have unemployment rates at or below five percent.” California, with its current 3.9 percent unemployment rate, did the same, combining all but six low-unemployment counties in their waiver request. As a result, ABAWDs in 90 percent of California counties are exempt from the work requirement. The new rules will limit the ability of states to gerrymander areas that are not economically linked and will require that all waived areas have an unemployment rate of at least 6 percent. This will limit waivers to areas with real concerns about the strength of the labor market, which is consistent with the law’s original intent.
According to the USDA’s latest report on SNAP household characteristics, about one-third of ABAWD households reported having some earned income. Still, some opponents of the new rules argue ABAWDs are simply unable to find work and shouldn’t be expected to. Not so. Several states have recently turned off waivers and started to successfully engage ABAWDs in work. The early effects in those states support the fact that ABAWDs can work, which will raise their income in the long run. That is the intent of the longstanding federal policy, and it’s past time, as the economic expansion continues now in its 11th year, for the ABAWD waiver policy to finally catch up.
This article by Matt Weidinger and Angela Rachidi first appeared at the American Enterprise Institute.