By Marta Mychak
In April NYLAG, along with other food security advocates nationwide, submitted comments to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) about whether it should reconsider certain rules that govern the participation of childless adults in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Under federal law, SNAP imposes a three-month time limit on most childless unemployed and underemployed adults unless they are working 20 hours a week. The push to further restrict benefits for this population comes from the idea that benefits programs need to encourage people to work, especially if they are childless adults aged 18-49 without disabilities.
It’s not surprising there’s a huge stigma attached to people receiving any type of government benefits. The stereotype that benefit recipients are happy to be on benefits their entire lives and don’t want to work to support themselves is something I’ve had to fight since becoming a benefits advocate and attorney. I see it in the community, on TV, and even from my own clients who feel the need to justify their situation. Like many others, childless adults often turn to SNAP for assistance when they are no longer able to make ends meets, especially as jobs are lost, hours are cut, or wages hover at the federal minimum. As a result of this rule, unemployed or underemployed individuals are cut off from food assistance, causing hardship and increasing food insecurity. The groups impacted by this rule are extremely poor and often not eligible for other help while unemployed.
Originally, this harsh rule was enacted in 1996 when the Clinton administration introduced major reforms to the nation’s welfare system. Since then, the USDA has given states flexibility in the regulations that govern the time limit. Today, states have the option to request a waiver of the time limit if they can document that a given geographic area has an insufficient number of jobs (or has an unemployment rate over 10 percent).
The current process is very straightforward: states must provide adequate documentation showing that the area’s unemployment rate would qualify it for a waiver. Once that is done, USDA cannot arbitrarily deny the waiver request.
The proposed rule changes appear to completely disregard the barriers to employment faced by this population. Many people subject to the time limit struggle to find employment even in normal economic times. They tend to have limited education and also face barriers to work such as a criminal justice history or racial discrimination.
It is also important to remember that there is no actual evidence that SNAP receipt discourages unemployed adults without children from seeking employment. For the population of individuals who aren’t working at least 20 hours a week, SNAP provides less than $5 a day in food benefits. It is hard to imagine these individuals would forgo earnings to maintain eligibility for SNAP.
For the last 20 years states have been free to use their waivers for SNAP’s three-month time limit to protect vulnerable citizens, to ease the burden of administering this complicated rule, and to craft meaningful work requirements that are fair and reasonable. Any change that would restrict, impede, or add uncertainty to New York’s current ability to waive areas with elevated unemployment would be dangerous and unfair to people facing barriers to employment that they cannot control.
Marta Mychak is a Public Interest Brooklyn Law School Fellow with NYLAG’s Public Benefits Unit.