Work Requirements in the U.S.’s Federal Food Assistance Programs Do More Harm Than Good  

Apr 15, 2024 | Social Policy


In one of the wealthiest nations of the world, it should be a source of national shame that millions of people in the United States (U.S.) can’t afford to put food on the table. Yet at a time when food insecurity in the U.S. is on the rise and families are feeling the pain of inflation, Republicans in Congress have made it harder to access a crucial lifeline: the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the federal program that helps low-income people buy food. 

In 2023, nearly 42 million people relied on SNAP each month. SNAP is supposed to serve as a safety net for people experiencing financial stress, which might result from job loss, insufficient income from low-wage work, or an inability to work. However, over the years, policymakers have restricted access to SNAP by imposing increasingly strict “work requirements” on certain adults, forcing them to prove that they work a certain number of hours each month to qualify for benefits. Congress suspended work requirements during the COVID-19 pandemic but reinstated them last summer; their return is expected to cause between 500,000 and one million people to lose their SNAP benefits. 

There are currently two different work requirements in SNAP, both of which create confusing hoops for SNAP beneficiaries to jump through and make the program more complex and expensive for the government to administer. The first is the “general” work requirement, which requires working-age, nondisabled adults to prove that they are either seeking employment, participating in job training, already working at least 30 hours each week, or have a qualifying exemption like caring for a young child. In the 1990s, Congress added a stricter work requirement for nondisabled adults ages 18-49 who don’t have dependents. People in this group must prove that they work, volunteer, or participate in job training for at least 20 hours per week, or else they will lose access to SNAP after three months and can’t reapply for another three years. In 2023, Congressional Republicans succeeded in their crusade to broaden this punitive policy; by 2025, the strict work requirements will expand to include adults ages 50-54, which puts an additional 750,000 people at risk of losing access to SNAP.

Proponents of work requirements argue that they lift people out of poverty by promoting employment and self-sufficiency. But the data suggests otherwise: according to researchers at the Hamilton Project and the Brookings Institution, multiple studies have revealed that work requirements do not affect employment. Instead, their main impact is stripping people who don’t comply with the requirements of their SNAP benefits. While some believe this punitive design is necessary to encourage people to work, it has the opposite result: people who are denied access to SNAP have worse long-term earnings and employment outcomes compared to people who receive SNAP, likely because SNAP helps people withstand periods of financial stress, equipping them to eventually re enter the labor force once they get back on their feet. 

Low-income people also face unique barriers to securing and maintaining employment, which the design of SNAP work requirements fails to account for. Most adults with SNAP who can work already do to some extent and rely on the program to supplement the income they earn from jobs in low-wage industries such as service or sales. Jobs in these industries tend to have variable hours, which can prevent people from consistently meeting SNAP’s 20-hour-per-week requirement. Low-income people are also likely to experience other barriers to employment, such as limited access to transportation, lack of Internet access, caregiving responsibilities, or discriminatory hiring practices—any of which can make finding or keeping a job very challenging. 

SNAP work requirements are a paternalistic and misguided attempt to promote self-reliance. If policymakers want to create pathways out of poverty through work, SNAP benefits are the wrong target. Instead, they should focus on making it easier for low-income people to secure well-paying jobs by investing in solutions like a livable federal minimum wage and more affordable higher education and vocational training. In the meantime, the least Congress can do is prevent millions of people from going hungry by eliminating SNAP’s harmful and ineffective work requirements.  


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