While economists have declared the recession over, we know that millions of Americans throughout the nation are still struggling to find full-time work. For them, simply getting by can be a daily struggle. Many are forced to make impossible choices between paying critical bills, getting lifesaving medication, and putting food on the table. Often the only assistance available to help them get enough food to eat each day is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. But more than half a million struggling Americans may soon lose this lifeline.
SNAP reduces hunger and hardship for millions of Americans. The vast majority of those who receive SNAP are seniors, children, people with disabilities, or are working. For millions of others, many of whom may have lost a job through no fault of their own, SNAP provides an important stepping stone to help them look for work and get back on their feet.
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Despite this, 23 states around the country are beginning to implement a harsh time limit on SNAP that will cut off assistance for over half a million of some of the poorest Americans. Federal law limits these individuals, ages 18 to 49, who are out of work and deemed able-bodied and not caring for children, to just three months of SNAP out of every three years—unless they are working or in a work training program for at least 20 hours per week.
While some claim that this harsh time limit is a “work requirement,” the policy applies regardless of how hard someone is looking for work or whether employment or job training is even available. And the reality is that states have no obligation to help those who are struggling find work or provide a work training slot. Unsurprisingly, most don’t.
The individuals who will be impacted by these cuts are a diverse group that includes not just unemployed workers seeking a job or job training, but also part-time workers who may not be able to find enough work to meet the 20-hour threshold. It also includes people facing significant barriers to work: A study conducted by the Ohio Association of Food Banks found that one-third of those subject to the time limit have disabilities or serious health conditions, 40 percent lack access to reliable private or public transportation, and 13 percent report being caregivers for a parent, relative, or loved one. Many of these individuals also do have children they are trying to support, the children just aren’t living in their homes. Many are also military veterans. Most of those who will be cut off don’t qualify for any other form of assistance, and struggle to get by on an average income of just $2,000 a year.
States that have already implemented such time limits have seen dramatic reductions in the number of people receiving SNAP. But cutting hundreds of thousands of struggling Americans off of nutrition assistance—which averages just $1.41 per person, per meal—won’t make it any easier for them to find work; instead, it will only mean more strain on charitable institutions that are already having difficulty keeping up with rising need. While food banks, soup kitchens, and churches play an enormous role in helping to reduce hunger, they simply cannot do it alone.
Policymakers must take action to preserve access to nutrition assistance.
While it is unlikely that Congress will act in time to stop these individuals from losing SNAP, states can take steps to limit the impact of these cuts. First and foremost, any area of a state with sufficiently high unemployment or a lack of jobs can have the time limit waived. Next, states must carefully screen individuals to ensure that the time limit is not incorrectly applied to exempt individuals, such as chronically homeless people. And finally, states can provide job training services that not only allow individuals to maintain eligibility for SNAP, but can also—if well designed—serve as a pathway to a well-paying job. Even with these steps, there are still a great many vulnerable individuals who will be impacted by these cuts. It’s ultimately up to Congress to get rid of this draconian rule.
The facts are simple: limiting how long people can get help putting food on the table will not mean that they will be able to find more jobs or get more hours. It simply means that they will be hungry.