States Slap Work Requirements on Food Stamps — And Enrollment Took a Dive

The number of people cashing in on food stamps is plummeting in states that re-instated work requirements.

The work requirement, signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996, mandated that able-bodied adults without dependents must either work, train, or volunteer. If participants failed to meet any of the requirements, they only received three months of benefits in three years from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). 

Then the Great Recession hit. When the economy collapsed and unemployment soared, the 2008 stimulus gave states the option to waive those requirements. The number of people on food stamps ballooned, almost doubling to 44 million participants from 26 million.

SNAP hit its peak in 2013, costing nearly $80 billion and feeding a beneficiary base that rivaled the population of Spain. Today, participation hovers at 44 million people, according to the USDA.

Cuts in the Food Stamp Program

President Donald Trump blasted the Obama administration for expanding the food stamp program, tweeting that the former president “doesn’t believe in work.” Trump promised to slash food stamp programs by nearly $200 billion, cutting costs by raising work requirements and shifting from federal to state funding, according to his Fiscal 2018 budget proposal.

However, some states are moving to beat Trump in slimming SNAP participation. Alabama is among the states that re-instated work requirements, tying able-bodied adults’ benefits to their participation in the workforce, Fox News reported.

The results were dramatic.

In Alabama, participation in SNAP plunged by 85 percent in the 13 counties which reintroduced work requirements in 2017. Georgia’s enrollment dropped by 58 percent in three participating countries, and Arkansas shaved 25,000 people off of its SNAP program after restoring work requirements in 2016, according to Fox News.

Kansas’s SNAP enrollment dwindled to a mere 25 percent of what it was before the state reintroduced work requirements. Of the 75 percent of people who left food stamps, 60 percent found jobs before the year was out and enjoyed average increase in income of 127 percent per year, according to the Foundation for Government Accountability.

A Shift in Focus

Proponents of the work requirements argue that they reduce dependency on government and encourage recipients to rejoin the workforce.

“I’m hopeful that the ending of the waivers for work requirements leads to greater earnings and less poverty,” Robert Doar, Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and former NYC Commissioner of Social Services, told Independent Journal Review. “We need our programs, especially when the economy is as strong as it is now, to be helping people get into the labor market. And sometimes that means saying that there is an expectation that you make an effort to help yourself by going to work.”

Anti-hunger advocates disagree. They contend that food stamps help low-wage workers put food on the table.

“For more than half a million working Georgians, SNAP mitigates low wages and job instability by providing workers and their families with supplementary income to buy food,” Deputy Director of the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute Jennifer Owens wrote in an article. “As calls for deep cuts in food assistance programs continue to make headlines, let’s remember that many Georgia families depend on SNAP benefits as a critical hand-up, not a hand out.”

Meeting the requirements by the time limit is complicated by fast job turnover, low wages, and limited education. Eighty percent of Georgians on food stamps have no education beyond high school, and the state is not required to provide them a spot in training programs. Many of those who lost their food stamps are now applying for disability benefits, Melissa Johnson, senior policy analyst at the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, told IJR.

Doar said that food stamps were meant to be used by able-bodied adults only during significant economic downturns. When the economy is in recovery, SNAP should emphasize helping people find jobs.

“Long-term dependency and long-term absence from the labor market is very damaging to Americans,” Doar said. “We should be helping people get into employment instead of just giving them resources that allow them to not work.”

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