What the Fight Over Work Requirements is Really About

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) currently provides food vouchers to about 42 million people. This critical program ensures they have enough food for themselves and their families. Research finds that food insecurity leads to worse economic and health outcomes, underscoring the importance of food assistance programs like SNAP. 

Despite these benefits, SNAP’s effectiveness is limited by punitive restrictions and paperwork burdens. Among the most onerous of these restrictions is a convoluted work-hours test and time limit that was added to SNAP in 1996. The test requires adults under age 50 to clock at least 80 hours of countable work each month unless they qualify for an exemption. If they fail the test in over three months, they are excluded from SNAP.

The work-hours test was suspended nationwide during the COVID-19 public health emergency. But the Biden administration’s decision to end the emergency effective May 11, 2023, means the work-hours test will kick back into place on July 1, 2023. Several hundred thousand people will lose SNAP benefits starting in October 2023 because they don’t have the necessary work hours. The exact number will depend on the decisions of state and local SNAP agencies, which have some discretion in how they implement the test, especially in areas with insufficient jobs. 

For conservatives, this isn’t enough. Conservative members of Congress are fighting to expand the work-hours test to cover more people, even going so far as to tie it to lifting the debt ceiling. These efforts are part of a more extensive campaign to restrict access to Medicaid through onerous work requirements. The debt-ceiling bill the House is voting on this week extends the SNAP work-hours test to 50 to 54-year-olds and further ratchets up the already extreme work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program.

There is an extensive and still growing body of research on the effects of the SNAP work-hours test. In a recent CEPR report, we reviewed the findings of 19 studies conducted since 2010 that use empirical methods to estimate the impact of the test on employment, benefits access, and well-being. The overwhelming majority of this research finds that the test is counterproductive, creating little to no positive impact on employment outcomes, the supposed goal of the test. At the same time, the work-hours test takes SNAP food vouchers away from many low-income people, including people in groups that should be exempt from the test’s requirements, like unhoused and disabled people.  

The research we reviewed also documents the test’s administrative burdens on people receiving SNAP and officials administering the program in local SNAP offices. The collateral damage includes the federal government wasting money to administer the test that could be put to better use elsewhere. And the administrative burdens offer one possible explanation of why the test decreases SNAP participation among groups of people who should be exempt.

If the decision to expand the SNAP work test were merely technical, the overwhelming body of evidence we reviewed should be the end of the story. There would be a bipartisan agreement that the costs of the test far outweigh any benefits it might have. The public dollars spent to administer a policy that local SNAP officials call an “operational nightmare” would be put to better use. 

But the proponents of the SNAP work test, and related policies like adding work requirements to Medicaid and tightening them in TANF, aren’t particularly concerned about whether work requirements meaningfully increase employment or improve well-being. They want to send a message about their vision of society — about who is in and rewarded and who is out and punished. 

As the anti-welfare guru, Robert Rector explained in a recent Heritage Foundation report, provisions like the SNAP work-hours test aren’t simply about “actual policy”; they’re designed to send a “very strong symbolic message of personal responsibility, time limits on aid, and work requirements.” Ultimately, the goal is to further the conservative agenda to push more people into marriage and limit their reproductive and sexual freedom, as the title of Rector’s report — Marriage, Abortion, and Welfare — signals. 

Here, it’s essential to recall that Congress added the work-hours test to SNAP in 1996. President Clinton’s State of the Union address that year declared that the “era of big government is over.” In August of that year, he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Responsibility Act (PRWORA) into law, establishing the SNAP work-hours test alongside other draconian benefit cuts. 

The law is commonly referred to as Bill Clinton’s welfare reform. But it was a fusion of then-Speaker Newt Gingrich’s neo-conservatism and President Clinton’s neoliberalism so the Gingrich-Clinton welfare law would be a more accurate description. Notably, the law didn’t just cut benefits and impose work requirements; it specified, in the very first words of its text, that “marriage is the foundation of a successful society.” 

As political scientists have documented, anti-Black racism and paternalism played a central role in the passage of legislation. Both crime and welfare are “racially coded” issues that activate white people’s racist beliefs that Black people are lazy and immoral. When Congress passed PRWORA, political scientist Martin Gilens published research finding that negative views of Black people receiving “welfare” had become more politically potent than those of white people and helped to generate support for cutting means-tested programs. 

This history helps explain why conservatives are pushing so hard now for more despite the failure of work requirements in SNAP, Medicaid, and TANF. It’s not about the “actual policy” or the economy; it’s about the symbolism: sending a strong message about who is good and bad and keeping the United States on a conservative and neo-liberal path that reached its high-water mark in the 1990s. 

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) has introduced legislation in the current session of Congress that would repeal the SNAP work-hours test. Given the well-documented harm caused by the test, Congress should include it in the Farm Bill that it needs to reauthorize later this year. 

More generally, the fact that so many working-class people need basic food vouchers has little to do with the people themselves and everything to do with the rules that structure the economy. Those rules need to be changed in ways that produce inclusive prosperity.

This piece is reposted from the ProsperUS blog.

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