April 1, 2019

Proposal to Restrict SNAP Time Limit Waivers Should Consider Factors beyond Unemployment Rates

April 1, 2019

The Trump administration is considering a proposed rule that would change long-standing policy in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The rule would tighten the criteria states use to obtain waivers of work-related time limits from the federal government for SNAP participants known as “able-bodied adults without dependents.”

Able-bodied adults without dependents are required to meet stricter work requirements than other adults participating in SNAP. In order to receive SNAP benefits for longer than three months out of a three-year period, they must work 80 hours per month.

Under current regulations, states can request to waive work-related time limits either statewide or in specific areas or counties if they have high unemployment rates and limited job opportunities. The proposed rule would effectively tighten those criteria, making it more difficult for states to obtain waivers and subjecting more people to work requirements in areas with limited economic opportunities.

What would the proposed rule change?

Current regulations offer states several avenues to qualify for SNAP time limit waivers. Time limits may be waived in counties or areas with a recent 24-month average unemployment rate that is at least 20 percent higher than the national average unemployment rate or if they are designated as a “labor surplus area” by the US Department of Labor.

To be designated a labor surplus area, a jurisdiction must have an elevated 24-month unemployment rate at least 20 percent higher than the national unemployment rate and a minimum unemployment rate of 6 percent.

Under the proposed rule, the revised criteria for qualifying for a waiver would eliminate an area’s status as a labor surplus area from consideration. Also, it would keep the criteria of having a 24-month unemployment rate of 20 percent higher than the national average but would set a hard, minimum unemployment rate of 7 percent to qualify.

The US Department of Agriculture estimates that, if the rule is adopted, about 755,000 participants—two-thirds of those who would be newly subject to time limits—could lose their SNAP benefits, particularly in areas with potentially limited opportunities and significant economic challenges.

The 7 percent unemployment threshold: Evidence based or more subjective?

Selecting the minimum unemployment rate threshold for work-related waivers should be based on evidence of job availability for SNAP participants considered able-bodied adults without dependents. Any policy change should also consider the hardships that the loss of SNAP benefits could create for those unable to meet work requirements.

The 7 percent threshold seems to lack grounding in established research about the natural rate of unemployment and is inconsistent with current program rules. The proposed rule itself (PDF) notes that “generally, the ‘natural rate of unemployment’ hovers around 5 percent.” The US Department of Labor considers labor surplus areas—those with an insufficient quantity of jobs—to be jurisdictions where the unemployment rate is 20 percent higher than the national average.  

Using this logic, an unemployment rate that is 20 percent higher than 5 percent, the natural rate of unemployment, is 6 percent, not 7.

People living in counties with unemployment rates between 6 and 7 percent are most likely to be affected by this change. Of 3,142 counties in the United States, about 364 counties (11.6 percent) had an unemployment rate between 6 percent and 7 percent according to the most recent 24-month period available for counties (2016–2017).

Counties with 6 to 7 percent unemployment rates have economic challenges and demographic characteristics that differ from counties with lower unemployment rates and more closely resemble areas with unemployment rates between 7 and 8 percent. Counties with unemployment rates between 7 and 8 percent would still qualify for waivers under the proposed rule.   

SNAP table

Counties with a 6 to 7 percent unemployment rate struggle with poverty and include many residents with barriers to employment. About one in five residents (19.9 percent) in the average county with a 6 to 7 percent unemployment rate have incomes below the federal poverty level.

Poverty levels in these counties aren’t just a short-term trend—more than one in four are considered areas of “persistent poverty,” meaning they have had high poverty rates since 1990. And, in the average county with a 6 to 7 percent unemployment rate, more than one in four residents (28.3 percent) are people of color. These residents may face systemic racism in the labor market and experience higher unemployment rates.

Despite these disadvantages, the proposed rule would no longer allow areas with 6 to 7 percent unemployment rates to qualify for a waiver from work-related time limits.

Although there is limited research on the characteristics of SNAP participants in this category, studies show that a significant share have physical and mental health challenges, have low educational attainment and multiple barriers to work (PDF), and live in deep poverty.

Setting a minimum 7 percent unemployment rate for waiver eligibility limits the flexibility of states to respond to the employment challenges experienced by low-income, able-bodied adults without dependents who are likely among their most vulnerable residents.

What happens when waivers are reinstated without consideration of economic conditions?

Some states have already reinstated SNAP time limits in areas that meet the current federal criteria for insufficient job availability.

According to the USDA, only 13 states operate SNAP programs without any work-related time limit waivers for able-bodied adults without dependents, even though they have at least one county or area that could qualify for a waiver, based on current rules. In fact, the share of able-bodied adults without dependents subject to the SNAP work-related time limit has increased from around 10 percent in 2013 to slightly over 60 percent in 2018.

In Kentucky, time limits were reinstated in all but 8 of its 120 counties by 2018, although 54 of these counties would still have qualified for waivers, based on current criteria. 

As we explore in our new report, the caseload of able-bodied adults in Kentucky without dependents enrolled in SNAP declined by 30 percent, compared with 12 percent for all participants, after time limits were reinstated. From January 2017 to September 2018, more than 13,000 people lost benefits, specifically because of the three-month time limit.

The revised criteria, and other proposed administrative changes, could make it harder for SNAP recipients to access benefits and for states to waive work-related time limits during future recessions, when SNAP could respond proactively to help those in need and stimulate local economies

Archana Pyati contributed to this post.

Rebecka Ortiz offers a sample of pasta (to daughter Sariah, age 3) that was being given away at the store where she was using her food stamps to stock up on food for her family on March 1, 2013. Many families and individuals in Woonsocket, Rhode Island take part in the SNAP program. Photo by The Washington Post/Getty Images

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