WASHINGTON ― The Trump administration and conservative Republicans in Congress are pushing to impose strict “work requirements” on people who receive food stamps as part of an intra-party brawl over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
It’s unclear if the faction that wants to slash SNAP will get their way, but in any case, “work requirement” is a bad description of the policy in question: a moralistic time limit on benefits that cuts people off even if no suitable work is available.
A funny thing about the SNAP debate, which for quirky parliamentary reasons could derail Republicans’ dreams of reforming the tax system, is that federal law already contains a work requirement for people who receive food stamps (the program’s former name, by which SNAP is still informally known). The time limit has kicked hundreds of thousands of people off benefits in recent years. Republicans want to make that requirement even stricter.
The food stamp work requirement is an overlooked part of broader reforms enacted in 1996 amid a national panic over so-called “welfare queens.” Unemployed adults without dependents or disabilities must work 20 hours per week or lose their benefits. The law offers some leeway on what counts as work ― training or volunteering can qualify ― and states are allowed to waive the limit during times of high unemployment. With jobless rates falling, most states have been re-imposing the limit. Republicans have pointed to enrollment declines in Kansas and Maine, which withdrew their waivers ahead of schedule, as evidence the policy is a success.
After implementing the time limit at the end of 2013, Kansas shrank its number of childless able-bodied adults receiving SNAP benefits by 75 percent. “These reforms immediately freed nearly 13,000 Kansans from welfare on December 31, 2013,” the Foundation for Government Accountability, a conservative think tank, said in a February 2016 analysis.
And the people who lost their benefits were better off, according to this analysis: “Nearly 60 percent of those leaving food stamps found employment within 12 months and their incomes rose by an average of 127 percent per year,” the report said.
A few months later, the Maine Department of Health and Human Services released a similar analysis of its October 2014 reimposition of work requirements, finding the incomes of Mainers kicked off the rolls had increased 114 percent.
Though it makes sense that with lower unemployment rates it should be easier for SNAP recipients to find jobs, the reports have several critics. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the biggest problem is that the analyses fail to account for the fact that someone on food stamps doesn’t necessarily remain on food stamps indefinitely. In other words, many of those able-bodied adults would have stopped receiving benefits and gotten jobs even if the government hadn’t cut them off.
“The authors fail to acknowledge that many SNAP recipients who are subject to the time limit were working already, or would soon be working, and as a result, their work rates and wages would likely have risen without the time limit,” the Center on Budget’s Ed Bolen and Stacy Dean wrote in a lengthy critique last December. According to their analysis of federal survey data from earlier years, fully three-quarters of nondisabled adults without dependents work within a year of receiving SNAP benefits, both before and after.
The Center on Budget faulted the FGA’s Kansas report for not including a “comparison group” to show how able-bodied adults without dependents fare on food stamps absent the policy change ― perhaps by looking at SNAP recipient wages from previous years. Report co-author Nicholas Horton said they could not have included a comparison group because the work requirement affected all SNAP recipients in Kansas.
“This wasn’t a scientific experiment,” Horton said. “We studied the effects of a policy change and we looked at specific individuals and their work situations before a policy change occurred, and then after that policy change occurred, and we measured the results of that.”
Daniel Schroeder, a research scientist with the Ray Marshall Center at the University of Texas at Austin, said the FGA deserved credit for trying to track the incomes of food stamp recipients over time.
“It’s good to do longitudinal research. It’s good to follow up,” he said. “But their conclusions are much stronger than their design allows.”
Schroeder has also studied state SNAP policies on time limits for childless adults without disabilities. From 2003 through 2014, Texas waived the time limit in various counties with high unemployment, creating a natural experiment: How did adults without disabilities fare on food stamps in waiver counties versus non-waiver counties?
“What they don’t know in that Kansas report is what would have happened to these people had you not kicked them off.”
Schroeder found that there is not a huge difference. In Texas counties with waivers, able-bodied adults without dependents typically received benefits for 3.7 months, compared with 3.2 months in counties that didn’t have waivers, according to research Schroeder presented at a conference in 2015. Nondisabled adults in waiver and non-waiver counties also had very similar income levels in the 18 months after they began to receive food stamps.
One thing that was different, however, was that the people who were allowed to keep their food stamps had a lot more money for food. The average earnings in both groups were only about $500 per month.
“The basic idea is that you have to be able to observe what would happen in the other case, the counterfactual,” Schroeder said. “What they don’t know in that Kansas report is what would have happened to these people had you not kicked them off.”
FGA research has drawn skepticism before. The state of Florida cited a Foundation report in defense of its 2011 welfare drug testing law, which had been challenged in federal court. The report claimed drug testing had saved an implausible amount of money by discouraging people from finishing their benefit applications. A judge practically laughed the FGA out of court, saying its brief on the matter “is not competent expert opinion, nor is it offered as such, nor could it be reasonably construed as such.”
The foundation’s founder, Tarren Bragdon, started his career in Maine, where he served in the state legislature and as director of a think tank called the Maine Heritage Policy Center. The organization generally offered analyses supporting Republican policy objectives, much as the Foundation for Government Accountability does today. Nevertheless, in 2011 a former Republican state senator reportedly called the organization’s work “oversimplistic and exaggerated.”
The reports on successful “welfare reform” in Kansas and Maine have ricocheted through conservative media and served as inspiration for new legislation by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who cited Maine’s example in a press release. The Jordan-Lee bill would shorten the federal time limit on SNAP from three months to one, increase the number of work hours required, and also apply the limit to nondisabled adults who have children.
Why add parents? Because that’s where the money is. The most recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, indicates that 44 percent of SNAP recipients are children, while only about 10 percent are able-bodied adults without children ― a figure from fiscal 2014 that has probably fallen since then.
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Another part of the Jordan-Lee bill that hasn’t received much attention would limit food stamp purchases only to foods deemed “essential” by the government, an idea that’s been gathering steam in recent years. Currently, food stamps can be used for any food product in a supermarket except alcohol.
The provisions of the legislation have apparently become a sticking point between Republican leaders and the conservative House Freedom Caucus, of which Jordan is a former chairman. The disagreement has helped further delay a budget resolution that is already months behind schedule. Republicans had planned to do tax reform as part of the budget process, because that would allow them to get legislation through the Senate with only 50 votes. So if they can’t decide whether they will use food stamp cuts to pay for increased military spending and President Donald Trump’s border wall, they won’t be able to cut taxes, either.
The Jordan-Lee bill would reduce SNAP spending by more than 20 percent over 10 years, according Robert Rector, a welfare expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation. Rector said the measure would give states plenty of funding to make sure anyone in danger of losing their SNAP benefits could enroll in a state-provided work activity, like job training, that would allow them to meet the work requirement.
“You are given an opportunity to do community service or training and you only lose your benefit if you refuse to do those things,” Rector said, adding that it’s fair to call it a “work requirement” ― but only if a state provides opportunities for people to enroll in training.
In addition to the many jobs available, Rector said, the Maine state government provided plenty of opportunities for community service or training, though his own analysis notes that the state had prepared only 1,000 slots in its Food Supplement Employment and Training Program. More than 10,000 people were subject to the work requirement.
Chris Hastedt, policy director for Maine Equal Justice Partners, said the state only operated four workforce centers where people could participate in the program, so the commute may have been an obstacle for some Mainers.
“Not everybody had that opportunity, putting aside what kind of opportunity it was,” Hastedt said.
The state said that of the roughly 2,000 people who met the work requirement and kept their benefits after 2014, most did so by working and “a few” may have fulfilled the requirement through training or volunteering. Rector said the people who were cut off probably made money from informal work arrangements that weren’t reported to the state. His analysis also argued that able-bodied adults without dependents tend to waste a lot of money on cigarettes, so they probably didn’t need their food benefit that badly.
“Those who don’t show up are not irrational people,” Rector said. “You can reasonably conclude that they were not starving.”