The Upshot of the Empirical Evidence on SNAP’s Work Test: It’s Counterproductive

In a recent series of posts, two conservative analysts at AEI argue in favor of the GOP push to expand punitive work-hours tests to more people receiving SNAP and Medicaid as part of pending must-pass legislation to raise the debt ceiling. According to the AEI duo, the “verdict is still out when it comes to examining work requirements in SNAP and Medicaid, mainly due to data limitations,” and the existing evidence from “five studies” is mixed. In our new comprehensive review of the empirical research on the SNAP work-hours test, Tori Coan and I discussed 19 studies published since 2010 and reach a very different set of conclusions. The table below summarizes the findings of these studies.

Taken as a whole and soberly considered, this growing body of research on the SNAP work test tells a relatively consistent story about its impacts. There is no question that the work test reduces access to SNAP food vouchers among vulnerable people with few resources. On employment, the best read of the evidence is that it has no impact on employment, or only a very small one. There is also some evidence of harmful spillover effects, including on homeless and disabled people, who generally should be exempted from the test; and, there is some evidence of negative impacts on individual and community well-being indicators, including health, past-due debt, property crime, and food-pantry utilization. 

Of the 10 studies that examined the impact of the work-hours test on employment, seven found no positive employment impacts, and three found positive impacts. The three papers finding positive impacts are among the weaker studies. From our discussion:

Harris (2021), using the ACS, finds a small (1.3 percent) increase in employment that was limited to urban areas. Cuffey et al. (2022) also find a positive employment impact, but their methodology is among the weakest of those used in the published studies. Their sample is limited to adults without a high school diploma — even though most people subject to the test have a high school diploma — and the survey they rely on (CPS) has a much smaller sample size and much more limited geographic detail than the ACS. In fact, the authors acknowledge the "likelihood that this group [low-income adults who do not have a high school diploma] is sufficiently small and that SNAP work restrictions would not have a meaningful effect on [the larger overall group of adult SNAP participants who do not live with children] or labor market outcomes of low-income adults in general."

Even a very cursory reading of this evidence does not support further expanding the work-hours test. A careful reading supports repealing the test altogether -- or at least sharply limiting its reach. This is a conclusion that thoughtful conservative proponents of "work requirements" for food vouchers should support. Even if the work-hours test is completely repealed, SNAP still has other work-related requirements that would remain in place, including registering for work (typically with the local employment office) and penalties for employed people who quit or reduce their work hours without good cause. States would still have the authority to mandate participation in SNAP's Employment and Training program. 

The AEI analysts also make several other claims that are not addressed in our report. Peter Germanis, a conservative but exacting welfare research and policy analyst, methodically debunks them all here.

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