Arkansas made the news when, in June 2018, it became the first state to require work or community engagement for Medicaid enrollees. But less attention has been paid to the 2016 reinstatement of work-related “time limits” on nutrition assistance in Arkansas, though this policy change could negatively affect program participants’ lives.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, provides noncash benefits to low-income households for purchasing food. Able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 without dependents, sometimes called “ABAWDs” (able-bodied adults without dependents), are required to work or engage in employment and training activities to access SNAP for longer than three months in three years. Arkansas calls this the “requirement to work.”
To learn more about the implementation and implications of the SNAP work-related time limits for people subject to ABAWD rules, we visited three communities in Arkansas and conducted key informant interviews with directors of local workforce centers, SNAP Employment and Training program service providers, and state SNAP officials within the Arkansas Department of Human Services. We also conducted focus groups with people who had participated in SNAP in the past three years and were likely subject to the ABAWD time limit. Our interviews found the following:
- SNAP participants and service providers are confused about work requirement rules. Though work requirements intend to encourage people to find a job, many SNAP participants in our focus groups said they felt confused and disempowered by the requirements and lacked help and information. The people who talked with us typically knew about SNAP work requirements but said they were unclear on the details, and unclear communication and other administrative barriers made it hard for them to understand how to comply. These limitations require SNAP participants to either navigate the system on their own or rely on service providers who also may not understand the work requirement.
- SNAP participants have limited access to jobs, training, and other support services. For work requirements in public assistance programs to promote sustained employment among participants, states need a work support service infrastructure that helps people access higher-quality jobs. However, when SNAP participants in our focus groups discussed their experiences with work and training, they emphasized the challenges to accessing steady jobs with living wages and obtaining training to help them access better jobs. The education and training opportunities available to people subject to the ABAWD work requirement are often limited to soft-skill training and basic work readiness supports. Though these services are vital to some participants, they are not what many people need to get jobs or advance toward higher-paying careers. The administrative challenges and structural barriers to complying with the work requirement have caused some participants to lose access to SNAP, disrupting their already tight budgets and forcing them to choose between basic necessities.
- Policy and administrative changes would benefit program participants. Our conversations with service providers and focus group participants suggested several changes that would benefit program participants, including clearer communication from the Arkansas Department of Human Services, better access to education and training opportunities, improved transportation infrastructure, and more broadly, a stronger safety net. Nonetheless, limited availability of high-quality jobs could pose a formidable obstacle even if the suggested strategies were implemented.
Many SNAP participants and service providers agreed that people should work if they can but questioned the value of the requirement to work in light of real-life challenges that complicate compliance and can lead to people losing access to vital nutrition assistance.