Improving Access to Nutrition Act Supports low-wage workers facing employment challenges
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Food is necessary to live, remain healthy, and work. The Improving Access to Nutrition Act, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Rep. Barbara LeeBarbara Jean LeeDemocrats to pass spending bill with Hyde despite 2020 uproar Democrats to pass spending bill with Hyde despite 2020 uproar Warren introduces universal child care legislation MORE (D-Calif.) May 16, would keep food on the tables of people struggling to find quality employment—instead of leaving them to find a job on an empty stomach.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is our nation’s most important anti-hunger program that helps make food affordable for nearly 40 million Americans—workers, parents, children, seniors, and people who are unemployed, have a disability, or care for an ill relative.

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But for those without children or a documented disability, SNAP imposes a strict time limit on how long they can get support. Since 1996, adults who are 18 to 49 have been allowed only three months of SNAP over a 36-month period, unless they are working or involved in some work-related activity or training at least half time. In the most recent year with available data, over 3.2 million Americans supported by SNAP were in groups subject to this harsh time limit.

Last December, the House and Senate rejected the Trump administration’s efforts to impose more restrictions on SNAP eligibility when they passed a bipartisan Farm Bill that strengthens SNAP. However, in February, the administration proposed a rule that would limit state flexibility to waive the time limits in areas of high unemployment and lead to 755,000 people losing SNAP benefits.

Cutting off food assistance based on hours worked simply doesn’t make sense. It completely fails to acknowledge the challenges many low-wage workers face when trying to find a job that provides enough stable work hours to support themselves and maintain their SNAP benefits. Lee has described the time limit as “being out of touch with the realities of the low-wage labor market.” Her bill would protect SNAP for those workers by giving them more time to look for jobs with predictable hours and better wages without facing the threat of losing nutritional support.

Taking away food based on workers’ inability to prove they are employed a certain number of hours a month is harmful, wrong, and hurts SNAP recipients who often work in low-wage jobs with unstable work hours, unpredictable schedules, and other barriers to economic security. SNAP’s time limits and other requirements are too often based on false stereotypes—grounded in racial resentment and misconceptions about who receives help—that perpetuate the myth that recipients aren't working and don't want to work. The reality is that most SNAP recipients who can work are already employed. Approximately 58 percent of SNAP recipients work and 82 percent were employed immediately prior to or after receiving SNAP.

Those subject to the time limit are a diverse group including youth aging out of foster care and other young adults, people of all races, non-custodial parents and parents of grown children, individuals affected by the criminal justice system, and more. Many SNAP recipients face multiple barriers to employment including lack of transportation, low educational attainment, unstable housing, undocumented disability, poor access to jobs, or inadequate employment and training programs.

Lee’s bill to remove SNAP time limits acknowledges these barriers to employment and the fact that three months is too little time to find a quality job. No evidence shows that taking food off the tables of hungry people helps them find jobs. In fact, strong evidence demonstrates that access to SNAP increases the likelihood of employment and self-sufficiency. Ending the three-month time limit for SNAP benefits is the right thing to do because access to food is a necessity for everyone.

Both authors work at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a national nonprofit organization promoting public policies that support people along a path to economic security. Elizabeth Lower-Basch is the director of income and work supports, and Parker Gilkesson is a policy analyst.