The First Round: Why Are 500,000 Americans Losing SNAP Starting This Week?

Nick Wood, RESULTS U.S. Poverty Policy Volunteer
March 29, 2016

This April, our nation will begin to travel down a road toward a new low in support for people living in hunger. Due to a provision that took effect on January 1, time limits on SNAP are now being re-imposed in 22 states. The impact will begin to be felt next month even in areas that we know have not recovered from the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009Food banks and shelters around the country are bracing for an influx of requests for their help from people living with hunger. Next month will see the first round of adults who are considered Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWD) will be dropped from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps). These are people who want to work but cannot find jobs, and are some of our poorest citizens with an average annual income of only around $2,000 for a single person household. This population is particularly vulnerable because they also tend not to receive other types of assistance focused on supporting families raising children, due to the specific age range (they are 18 to 49), or because they have not been determined to have a disability.

The time limit is supposed to only affect people who are not employed and also choosing not to participate in a “work training program” for at least 20 hours a week. The problem for many people who cannot find work and want to participate in work training is that states are not required to ensure that any such work training programs are actually available to them. This makes the time limits one of those requirements that is more of an arbitrary prohibition on food for the hungry than a real work incentive. Despite strong statements by legislative sponsors of the provision when in was introduced within SNAP in the 1990s who declared that states would provide access to work programs, most states do not do so. They leave people who cannot find work to also find their own work training or be forced to live in hunger.

Such a drastic reduction in access to food assistance might have been mitigated, but several states with high density areas of unemployment chose allow the time limits to go into effect. By the end of this year between 500,000 to 1 million people who need food assistance will be subjected to the arbitrary rule which prohibits them from accessing SNAP for more than 3 months within a 3 year time period. This means that even if they are living in poverty and faced with hunger for the entire 3 years, they can only receive food assistance for 3 months of that time.

Language in the 1996 welfare law at least acknowledged that employment opportunities in some areas could be so limited that reducing benefits to 3 months would not make sense. It allowed areas of chronically high unemployment to apply for a waiver of the time limits. Today, even though many areas have recovered from the recession of a few years ago, many states still have areas within them that have not recovered and could have been eligible for the waiver. These high unemployment waivers have been used in every state at some point since 1996, but now states like Arkansas, Florida, and North Carolina have decided they will not continue their ABAWD high-unemployment waiver.

As food banks and shelters from around the country brace for the impact of thousands losing SNAP, it is important for us as advocates to educate our policymakers and one another about how it is affecting our communities. SNAP has been such a crucial program for those in need and a way to keep our communities strong, especially in times of recession or in the event of disaster, that we simply cannot allow it to fade away bit-by-bit until it is too degraded to reach people with urgent needs for food. While RESULTS has not prioritized this issue in our nutrition campaign work (primarily because of the confusing technical nature of the policy debate, and that the policy decisions are happening in the states), our friends at the Food Research and Action Center have created this infographic (download from the link ‘7 Actions to Stop Time Limits’) describing key steps advocates can take. In addition, it is critical on a broader level that we keep on raising our voices in the media about the importance of SNAP, especially given the additional threats that SNAP and other anti-poverty programs face in the coming months.