In December, the USDA finalized changes to the requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP. The program, colloquially known as food stamps, provides funding for individuals and families with incomes at or below the poverty line to purchase food at the grocery store.

The program was signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1996 and included a provision that, in order to receive benefits, Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWD) had to demonstrate that they were working or actively looking for work. 

That requirement was waived during the Great Recession in 2009 and reintroduced by President Trump last year amid record-low unemployment.

To receive SNAP benefits, every ABAWD must do one of the following: 

  • Work at least 80 hours a month. Work can be for pay, for goods or services (for something other than money), unpaid, or as a volunteer.
  • Participate in a work program at least 80 hours a month. A work program could be SNAP Employment and Training or another federal, state, or local work program.
  • Participate in a combination of work and work program hours for a total of at least 80 hours a month.
  • Participate in workfare for the number of hours assigned to you each month (the number of hours will depend on the amount of your SNAP benefit).

SNAP benefits are administered by the states, and these requirements do not apply to states where unemployment is higher than 10 percent. They also do not apply to anyone who is not considered an ABAWD, including senior citizens, people who are already working, people caring for a young child, and people with disabilities that prevent them from working.

The Trump administration says the reinstatement of work requirements brings the program back in line with its original intent — providing assistance to people who need it, not a handout for people who could otherwise be working.

As might be expected in today’s political climate, reaction to the changes varied across the political spectrum. 

The conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute applauded the decision, saying that only about 3 million of the estimated 18 million households receiving SNAP benefits are considered ABAWD and the changes will help close loopholes that states used to request exemptions for areas that were not economically depressed.

In times of low unemployment, when jobs are plentiful, the entire economy benefits when adults are in the workforce and able to provide for themselves, AEI argued.

In contrast, the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution argued that work requirements prevent states from adjusting to changing economic conditions like the closing of a factory or major retail center. 

If the change is not enough to put the overall unemployment rate for the state over 10 percent, the state can’t grant an exception to people who need extra time to find new jobs. This, Brookings argues, will spur further economic slowdown and migration away from areas that are already experiencing a downturn.

The work requirement changes are expected to take effect on April 1 and will end the benefits for any ABAWD who is not complying with the work requirements.


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