The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
May 16, 2018

How expanded work requirements in the 2018 Farm Bill could affect SNAP participants and states

The US House of Representatives is expected to vote on the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, the Farm Bill reauthorization, later this week. The proposed legislation expands and intensifies work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) while changing eligibility criteria and benefit rules.

Many individuals and families turn to SNAP as a safety net in months when they are not working or are between jobs even though they have worked or will work in other months. Research shows SNAP has a significant impact on reducing poverty.

In a new research brief, we analyze the potential impact of the proposed work requirements on current SNAP participants as well as implications for states. We find that 7.9 million, or 20 percent, of SNAP participants in an average month would be subject to the proposed work requirements, and 66 percent of those people wouldn’t meet them. If the proposal goes into effect, states would need to increase their investment in administrative procedures and in employment and training programs to help participants maintain their SNAP benefits.

How the Farm Bill would change SNAP work requirements

Although SNAP has general work requirements for adults and stricter work requirements for able-bodied adults, the bill intensifies work requirements for able-bodied adults ages 18 to 59 who are not pregnant or caring for a child under 6 and for people with substantial health limitations. It requires them to work or participate in employment or training activities at least 20 hours a week to continue receiving SNAP benefits.

Unless covered by a waiver or exempted, participants would have one month to comply with the work requirement by finding employment with the sufficient number of hours or enroll in an employment or training program. If they cannot meet the requirements within a month of falling out of compliance, participants risk being locked out of their SNAP benefits for at least one year. They can have SNAP benefits reinstated once they come back into compliance or can obtain an exemption.

The 2018 Farm Bill also allows states to seek waivers in areas with high unemployment and can exempt up to 15 percent of participants at risk of becoming ineligible.

How these changes would affect SNAP recipients

Using the Urban Institute’s newly developed Analysis of Transfers, Taxes, and Income Security microsimulation model and data from the 2015 American Community Survey, we estimate the number of individuals and households, including households with children, in 2018 that would be affected by changes to SNAP outlined in the 2018 Farm Bill.  

Among the 38.9 million people participating in SNAP in an average month of 2018, 7.9 million, or 20 percent, would be subject to the proposed work requirements (slated to take effect in 2021) based on their work patterns in any given month.

Among these 7.9 million,  

  • 5.2 million participants, or 66 percent, would not meet the proposed work requirement based on their current work patterns for a month, although some might receive an exemption or live in an area where the requirements are waived; and
  • 2.7 million participants, or 34 percent, would likely meet the work requirements based on their current work patterns for a month.  

Also noteworthy is what we learned about people working intermittently, a common experience among SNAP participants. When we examine SNAP program participants over a year, 9.8 million would be subject to, but would not meet, work requirements for at least one month in 2018. But 52 percent of this group would meet the work requirements in at least one other month in the year.

These participants could lose SNAP benefits if they cannot find a job or enroll in an employment or training program within one month of falling out of compliance.

We also estimate that 2.7 million SNAP households with children have adults who are subject to work requirements. Among these households, 1.9 million, or 69 percent, in a given month would not meet the requirements, even though more than half do meet them in at least one other month of the year.

Implications for states and funding decisions

Results among individual and household SNAP participants vary across states, and states would need to invest in new administrative procedures and SNAP employment and training programs.

The proposal would require states to offer a slot for 20 hours a week to anyone unable to meet the work requirements on their own. Although the proposed bill allocates $1 billion for these services, our analysis suggests this allocation may not be adequate. Recent analysis of employment and training programs that promote opportunity suggests that effectively operating these programs might cost between $7,500 and $14,000 per participant.

We provide upper-bound estimates of the number of people who would likely need employment or training to continue receiving SNAP benefits because some of those we estimate as subject to work requirements would receive exemptions or waivers. But the scale of investment states would need to make in their employment and training programs to meet the forecasted need exceed their investments to date. 

Research has shown that work requirements in safety net programs do not necessarily help people find well-paying jobs or lift them out of poverty. Policymakers need to consider the pros and cons of various approaches as they consider the 2018 Farm Bill.

Among the challenges the bill presents that policymakers may want to revisit is the short period for allowing someone to show compliance, the expectations for state administrative procedures and investments, the reduction in state flexibility to tailor program rules, and the need for high-quality employment and training for many participants that is likely well beyond current capacity.

Hilda Herrera pays for her groceries using a food stamp program at a supermarket in West New York, N.J., on Jan. 12, 2015. Photo by Seth Wenig/Associated Press.

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