USDA Signals SNAP Reform

Congress created the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to reduce food insecurity among impoverished Americans. At the same time, Congress recognized that welfare programs must foster self-sufficiency. The Trump administration is looking for innovative solutions that improve both goals.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) seeks public comment on methods for improving self-sufficiency among “Able Bodied Adults without Dependents” (ABAWDs). A possible method for achieving this goal is reforming “time restriction waivers” for states and localities, which currently allow five states, parts of twenty-eight states, and 1,300 counties to ignore ABAWD work requirements.

SNAP has time restrictions on ABAWDs receiving benefits. ABAWDs are able-bodied adults age 18 to 49 without pregnancies or dependents for whom they care. Since ABAWDs can and should work, SNAP limits their benefits to only three months in a three year period without meeting work requirements. After those three months, ABAWDs must work at least 80 hours per month, volunteer, or enroll in school or job training.

Yet, waivers exist at the state and local level that allow ABAWDs to skirt this restriction. Waivers are authorized by a few criteria related to unemployment rates. Basically, when jobs are scarce, government believes work requirements could be infeasible due to limited job opportunities, so SNAP recipients deserve leniency. Authorizing factors for waivers are as follows (from USDA website):

  • A recent 12-month unemployment rate above 10 percent;
  • A recent 3-month unemployment rate above 10 percent;
  • Designation as Labor Surplus Area (LSA) by the Department of Labor;
  • Qualification for extended unemployment benefits; or
  • A recent 24-month average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average for the same 24-month period.

Additionally, states may wave time restrictions for 15 percent of their ineligible ABAWD caseload. This waiver exists to help states deal with the alleged complexity and burdens of monitoring recipients and the benefits they receive. State and local waivers, as well as the 15 percent waiver are applied at states’ discretions. For example, Maine and Kentucky passed legislation banning their state governments’ from applying for waivers.

Waivers make some sense for times with chronically high unemployment, but in today’s steadily growing economy, not so much. The 20 percent rule allows California to get a state-wide waiver for ABAWD time restrictions.

Meanwhile, California’s unemployment rate has been under 6 percent for almost three years, the state outpaces the US in per capita income, and it eclipsed US GDP growth during the past five years. Its unemployment rate today is a cool 4.3 percent.

The large national caseload of ABAWD waivers suggests that getting a job in the United States is difficult, even though jobless claims dropped to a 45-year low and economists say the US has reached full employment. Giving high-performing states like California waivers defeats the purpose of work requirements!

Since the economy began recovering following the Great Recession, total SNAP recipients have declined but are still well above pre-recession levels. ABAWD time restriction waivers have also declined. There were 42.203 million SNAP recipients in 2017, down from its peak of 47.636 million in 2013. This figure is still 16 million higher than the 26.549 million recipients in 2007. Meanwhile, real median household income in 2016 surpassed 2007 totals by almost $1,000. SNAP enrollment is slow to respond to today’s economic prosperity.

Heightened benefits come from Bush and Obama administration policies, as well as state decisions. SNAP enrollment also grew during the booming pre-recession 2000s economy. The 2002 and 2008 farm bills signed by President Bush extended SNAP to non-citizens, boosted benefits for larger families, indexed benefits to inflation, simplified enrollment, and hiked minimum benefits. President Obama’s 2009 stimulus law waived ABAWD work requirements nationwide through September 2010 and expanded benefits through 2013. States used administrative authority outlined in the 1996 welfare reform law to expand enrollment on their own.

Tightening waivers should be a USDA priority. States should only receive waivers if the economy is bad. As it stands, the waiver process is preventing SNAP enrollment from falling to pre-recession levels since many ABAWDs are waived from work requirements. If ABAWDs faced the option of working to receive benefits versus getting none, enrollment would decline and USDA’s resources would go to people who truly need them.

Maine presents fantastic results for refusing its own ABAWD waiver eligibility. In 2014, Maine passed a law forcing ABAWDs to follow work requirements. One year later, ABAWDs receiving SNAP benefits fell from 16,000 to 4,500 and income among ABAWDs rose by 114 percent. Since then, ABAWDs receiving benefits in Maine have fallen further, and many are back to work earning more income than SNAP provides. This reform proved that a large portion of ABAWDs are either willing to work towards self-sufficiency or are receiving unreported income besides benefits.

Removing waivers across the country would bring Maine’s results elsewhere. The 4.5 million ABAWDs receiving SNAP benefits nationally would decline, saving federal dollars and preserving them for the most needy, like folks with disabilities or dependents. Waivers do not serve goals of self-sufficiency or food security during a strong economy.

FreedomWorks Foundation urges USDA to implement reforms that reduce ABAWD waivers for states and localities. You can file public comments supporting waiver reform here.