Taking away a person’s access to housing and food does not promote work

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In early childhood, I was under the care of my grandmother. Because child care costs would have consumed her entire paycheck, she retired from her lifelong career in the textile factories and tapped into her Social Security benefits early, at 56 years old. We lived off her $450 a month Social Security check and food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for most of my childhood.  

Although the amount we received was low, it enabled us to purchase more than just butter, eggs, sliced bread, and a few canned goods at the grocery store. We could add proteins, fresh vegetables, and a box of ice cream sandwiches to the weekly food budget. We could eat.

Now, I study public benefits at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP), a national anti-poverty nonprofit, and I can say with confidence that my grandmother and I were one of the few families who never lost our benefits due to arbitrary rules that imply people who aren’t working don’t deserve help. We narrowly avoided SNAP’s general work requirements, and, thankfully, were never subject to the stricter rules for so-called able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). Under these rules (often called time limits or ABAWD time limits), people who are 18-49, don’t live with children, and haven’t been diagnosed with a disability are limited to just three months of food assistance in a three-year period if they don’t work at least 80 hours per month.

Time limits restrict access to SNAP, especially for people who are already marginalized in the labor market or live in areas where there aren’t many jobs. Importantly, states may request waivers of the time limit in areas of high unemployment, but some states have chosen never to take these waivers despite qualifying. Other states have asked for them in rural areas but not in cities.

In 2021, the Urban Institute released a report following recipients of SNAP in nine states that reinstated work requirements or work-related time limits. They found that the new rules overly complicated the experience of applying for and maintaining benefits, as well as the process agencies use for determining eligibility. These rules led to an alarming number of participants being dropped from the program in all nine states. On average, 24 percent of participants who were subject to time limits lost their benefits after a four-month period.

The work requirements succeeded in getting people off benefits, but not for the right reasons. There was no evidence that the stricter requirements increased employment or annual earnings. Instead, the evidence suggested that eligible people lost their benefits because work requirements and time limits made it too complicated to apply for and keep their benefits. The requirements forced people to focus on navigating complex, bureaucratic systems instead of finding and keeping quality jobs.

Rep. Alma Adams’ (D-N.C.) Closing the Meal Gap bill would eliminate this harmful provision. CLASP has endorsed this bill and urges it to be included in the upcoming farm bill. Alarmingly, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has proposed legislation that would dramatically increase the share of SNAP households subject to this time limit and would also apply it to housing assistance. His bill would extend the time limit to parents and caregivers (except for those with children under 6) and to people up to age 60.

If the time limit were ever expanded to people over age 50 or with kids over age six in the house, these families could have their access to shelter and food completely denied because of something as arbitrary as a birthday.

At a time when many available jobs don’t provide liveable wages, basic labor protections, paid sick days, family and medical leave, or predictable work schedules, we cannot attach arbitrary work requirements to benefits access. Even under current time limits, so-called ABAWDs who are employed can get kicked off benefits if their boss unexpectedly cuts their hours. If policymakers actually want to help recipients participate in the labor market, they have much better ways to support employment. But all of these strategies depend on benefits programs being sufficient, accessible, and responsive to people’s needs.

Thankfully, my grandmother and I were lucky enough to receive consistent financial support from one of the nation’s largest benefit programs. For us, SNAP worked. But I also know that far too many families, especially those considered “nontraditional,” are one arbitrary requirement or misguided provision away from losing nutrition assistance and falling more deeply into poverty. All children and caregivers deserve to rest, eat, and spend time with one another without fear — without feeling heavy, unrelenting dread about where supper will come from or whose couch they can sleep on next.

Jessi Russell is a research assistant on the income and work supports team at the Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) in Washington, D.C.

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