Urban Wire Work patterns over time—not in a single month—show how working adults use SNAP
Elaine Waxman
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In a report released last month, the White House Council of Economic Advisers (CEA) called for more stringent work requirements for participants in safety net programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps low-income families afford food.

The CEA analysis focused on a single month’s worth of data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) to make the point that additional requirements are needed to increase the employment of SNAP participants. That data showed that 60 percent of working-age adults receiving SNAP in December 2013 worked less than 20 hours that month.

But a snapshot in time fails to provide a complete picture of work effort among SNAP participants. Several recent studies using the SIPP and other datasets demonstrate that many people on SNAP are working over the course of a year, even if they are not working in a given month.

Why do work patterns over time matter?  

Many SNAP participants work before, during, and after receiving benefits, suggesting that avoidance of work is not the problem. Three recent studies show that for many people, joblessness or low work hours can be temporary.

  1. Looking at SIPP data between 2009 and 2013, an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities shows that more than 50 percent of nondisabled adults receiving SNAP were working in a single month, and about 75 percent were working in the 12 months before or after that month. Work participation rates are even higher when counting other household members. More than 80 percent of adult-only SNAP households and 87 percent of households with children worked at some point during the year before or after a given month.
  2. A recent Urban analysis of the proposed expansion of SNAP work requirements in the House version of the Farm Bill also examines work over the course of a year. The proposal calls for nondisabled adults, including parents of children older than 6, to work at least 20 hours a week or 80 hours a month to receive SNAP benefits. Urban’s analysis finds that 52 percent of participants who would likely be subject to work requirements—and likely not meet them because of insufficient work hours in a given month—would, in fact, meet the work requirements in at least one other month that year.
  3. A Brookings Institution analysis on the potential impact of expanded SNAP work requirements finds that over a 16-month period, one in five adults ages 18–59 without young children at home alternates between working more than 20 hours a week and either working fewer than 20 hours a week, not working but seeking employment, or being out of the labor force.

Fluctuating work hours are the norm

Many workers may use SNAP as a temporary measure when they are out of work or not working enough to make ends meet. Two studies show that instability is increasingly the norm for many workers.  

  1. Around three-quarters of working parents ages 26–32 with a child under age 13 report that their work hours in the previous month were an average of 40 percent higher or lower than their usual hours. This University of Chicago analysis also finds that, for many parents, fluctuating hours are driven by employer decisions rather than employee choice.
  2. Jobs for people with lower educational attainment that are expected to grow significantly over the next decade are in sectors with low wages and unstable hours, such as food service. A recent Urban Institute analysis finds that low-wage workers are also disproportionately likely to have seasonal jobs—such as those in hospitality, retail, and agriculture—where work is available in some months, but not in others.

SNAP can complement work

The CEA report contends that work requirements counter disincentives to work created by the receipt of benefits. But prior research suggests that SNAP’s effect on work effort are modest. SNAP also has features designed to increase recipients’ incentives to work.

SNAP disregards 20 percent of earned income in calculating eligibility for benefits. States can temporarily disregard increased earnings of SNAP households for short periods, to minimize the impact of a small income increase on household benefits. Because of these policies, SNAP households with earnings have an advantage over those with unearned income such as cash benefits.

States can also establish higher gross income limits than the federal threshold of 130 percent of the federal poverty level. This flexibility, known as “broad-based categorical eligibility,” is particularly valuable for low-income households with earnings who still face significant expenses (such as housing or child care) that reduce the resources available for food. Indeed, over 90 percent of the households made eligible through the higher gross income limits under broad-based categorical eligibility have earned income.

In both FY 2018  and 2019 budget proposals, the Trump administration advocated for eliminating features of SNAP that support participants striving to increase their earnings, including the state option to determine broad-based categorical eligibility. The House version of the Farm Bill proposes similar changes.   

The key challenge for many low-income households seeking assistance from SNAP is the nature of low-wage work itself, on which the CEA report is silent.

We need policies addressing the volatile nature of low-wage jobs, the low wage growth associated with those jobs, and the barriers to employment that further hinder better employment outcomes for low-income people. These issues are more complex than the administration’s singular pursuit of work requirements would suggest. Engaging directly with these realities is the only way to achieve better policies.


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Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Families with low incomes Welfare and safety net programs Hunger and food assistance Workers in low-wage jobs Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) From Safety Net to Solid Ground
Policy Centers Income and Benefits Policy Center