The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides crucial nutrition assistance to low-income individuals and households whose incomes are at or below 130 percent of the Federal Poverty Level ($16,744/annually for an individual and $28,548/annually for a household of three). Along with unemployment insurance, SNAP is the most responsive aid program providing assistance during economic downturns. SNAP is fully federally funded and is administered by states.
Most unemployed adults who do not have children living in the home are limited to three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period unless they can document that they are working at least 80 hours per month or participating in a qualifying workfare or job training program. States have the flexibility to seek waivers from this time limit in areas with high unemployment where qualifying jobs are scarce.
These time limits for adults without dependents are purportedly to encourage them to get into the labor force. However, new research out this month from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that SNAP time limits and work requirements for this population have little impact on employment and earnings with increases that are “not statistically different from zero”. While the stated benefits of time limits — getting people into employment — are not proven to work, time limits do have significant impacts in reducing SNAP program participation and by extension increasing hunger as household incomes stay flat. The researchers found a reduction in participation by 53 percent of those subject to the time limits.
These results are unsurprising because taking food benefits away from low-income individuals does nothing to address the underlying barriers they face to employment. A survey of adults subject to these time limits in Ohio found that this population faces substantial barriers to employment including a lack of transportation, criminal records, housing instability, and physical and mental health limitations — none of which are addressed by taking food benefits away.
Prior to the pandemic and as a result of state legislation passed in 2018 (HB 4001), West Virginia enforced SNAP time limits for adults without children in the home in 36 of the state’s 55 counties, even as many of those counties were eligible for federal waivers due to higher-than-average unemployment. This policy required adults ages 18 to 49 with no dependent children in the home to document 80 hours per month of work or educational activity in order to remain eligible for SNAP benefits.
Extensive data is available in the nine counties with the lowest unemployment rates that the Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) used as a pilot to test this program in 2016. In addition to the DHHR’s own analysis showing no discernible impact on employment rates in the pilot counties in the first year, a WVCBP analysis found the same results in a three-year study of the longer-term impacts. While SNAP time limits and work requirements have failed to improve employment in West Virginia and around the country, they do harm our economy and our ability to respond to economic downturns.
In March 2020, with the passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the three-month time limit on SNAP benefits was suspended for the duration of the public health emergency, which is still ongoing as the economic impacts of the pandemic continue. This provision has likely helped West Virginians who would not normally be eligible for the program access it.
Combined with other COVID relief measures, the impacts on families across the country was significant. Household food insecurity fell by nearly 30 percent between spring 2020 and 2021. In March and April 2020, during the first few weeks of the pandemic, more than one in five adults nationally (21.7 percent) reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous 30 days. A year later in April 2021, this share had declined to 15.3 percent, or one in seven adults.
Statewide and national data has made clear that SNAP is critical to food security and improved nutritional outcomes. Additionally, efforts to condition food benefits on the ability to secure work have been proven to do little to increase employment among populations who face significant barriers to work. State lawmakers should heed the lessons learned from the pandemic and available research and repeal HB 4001, legislation passed in 2018 which takes away the ability of our state to obtain waivers from time limits and work reporting requirements when they are most needed in times when unemployed workers outnumber available jobs.
Instead of enforcing failed policies that result in increased hunger, lawmakers can focus on addressing the barriers to employment that impact these workers by ensuring access to health care, increasing public transportation, expunging criminal records, making education more affordable, and enacting other measures that address economic security.
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