Complicated work requirements will upend SNAP as a stabilizing force for those in crisis

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Over the last couple months, we at the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center have been holding community conversations to hear from individuals across the state about the challenges they are facing and to understand what they would like to see done differently in Harrisburg. One young man we spoke to in recent weeks, Colten, told us his story. Colten has been homeless off and on over the last three years since his grandma committed suicide. He has been in and out of low wage retail jobs and struggles to secure affordable housing. Against all odds, Colten has been working hard to get his GED and proudly offers that he passed his social studies exam with honors.

Colten said that not having a place to lay your head at night takes an emotional toll, as one might imagine. It’s hard. Throughout his bout of homelessness, he said SNAP (“food stamps”) has remained a constant for him — it’s easy to get and gives him access to food despite living in a state of crisis.

Colten is a person who would face stringent work requirements connected to SNAP under the new version of the Farm Bill, which passed along party lines through the U.S. House Agricultural Committee on Wednesday, April 18. This new version of the Farm Bill, which is up for reauthorization every five years, would attach untenable and unproven work requirements to SNAP. Under the “one strike and you’re out” provision, if individuals don’t prove every month that they worked for at least 20 hours a week or that they qualified for an exemption, they would be cut off from food stamps for a year. Two strikes and they’d be cut off from food stamps for three years.

The House Agricultural Committee’s version of the Farm Bill would cut SNAP benefits by more than $17 billion and would result in many Americans like Colten, who are already struggling to pay for life’s necessities, to lose this critical benefit. It would impose strict work requirements that would be both a barrier to participation and expensive for states to implement. This bill would result in increasing food insecurity in the state of Pennsylvania and it would hurt local economies, retailers, and rural and urban communities alike.

Contrary to the image pro-work requirements Republicans want you to have of the average SNAP recipient, a recent study of SNAP recipients by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities showed that 74% of SNAP recipients, like Colten, work within a year of receiving benefits. Eighty-one percent of families that receive SNAP have at least one member who has worked in a year.

The other disturbing piece of SNAP work requirements is that its authors seem to know (or care) very little about the prevalence or characteristics of low-wage work. Many SNAP recipients work in service jobs as home health and personal care aides, child care workers and teacher assistants, cooks and waiters and waitresses, cashiers and retail salespeople, maids and housekeepers, janitors and building cleaners, etc. These jobs typically pay so low that the government has to subsidize the employers by providing food stamps or Medicaid to their workforce — something that would not be needed if employers would pay decent wages.

Having a stringent work requirement of at least 20 hours a week would penalize low-wage workers for something they often have no control over — their hours. One report on low wages and unpredictable schedules shows that 230,000 workers in Pennsylvania want full-time work but can only find part-time work. Forty-one percent of hourly workers receive their schedules less than one week in advance and 83% of hourly part-time workers had fluctuating hours in the prior month. Colten spoke of the challenges the homeless face in trying to keep a spot in the shelter system and maintaining a job. Because of high rents and growing homelessness, shelter spots in his community must be reserved by 7:30 a.m. and they generally fill up by 8 a.m. If you are able to get a spot but are not in the shelter by 7 p.m., they won’t let you in. This is untenable given the shifting schedules of many in low-wage jobs.

SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps, is our nation’s most effective anti-hunger program. In 2017, SNAP helped 42 million Americans pay for groceries. In Pennsylvania, 1.84 million people benefited from SNAP — that is, 14% of our state’s population or 1 in 8 Pennsylvanians. The rates of SNAP participation benefit residents in urban (15.0%) and rural (13.7%) communities in Pennsylvania.

Given the instability of the low-wage labor market and the struggles faced by individuals and families trying to navigate it, what kind of sense does it make to create more stringent work requirements for SNAP, which has been one consistent source of help and a stabilizing force for many like Colten? None that I can see. These work requirements will not help Colten find and maintain a good paying job. It will just make him hungry while doing so, which is likely to have the opposite effect.

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