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We need a safety net that protects low-wage workers

By Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach

Oct 3, 2019

The economy is back to health after a drawn-out recovery from the Great Recession. Today the unemployment rate is less than 4 percent, and more people are rejoining the labor force. Unfortunately, despite recent progress, the U.S. is still falling well short of its potential, with the share of adults in the labor market below that in Canada, France, Japan, and the United Kingdom.

Policymakers are rightly focusing on how to raise the number of people with a job. This is welcome news. Work is not only good for the economy, but has also been shown to be worth more than a paycheck. Studies have shown that employment provides substantial nonpecuniary benefits, including increased life satisfaction and better health.

There is widespread agreement that the best way out of poverty is through steady employment, but debate rages over how to most effectively promote work — especially among recipients of assistance programs like SNAP (SNAP, also known as the food stamp program, subsidizes food purchases for low-income families). Differences in approaches to promoting work have largely stalled progress on the Farm Bill. House Republicans offer a plan with rigid work requirements that would restrict SNAP for most non-elderly adults, allowing them to receive benefits only in the months they are either working or in training programs for at least 20 hours per week.

The problem with tying work requirements to SNAP benefits is that this approach ignores basic labor market realities for those participating in SNAP. An increasing share of SNAP participants are working, but as shown in recent analysis they tend to work in low-paying and unstable jobs — such as cashiers, cooks, retail sales clerks, wait staff, and janitors. Such jobs have seen stagnant wages over the past 15 years, and workers in these occupations have frequent spells of unemployment and volatile hours.

As a result, the House’s proposed work requirement would end up sanctioning many workers by restricting their access to SNAP benefits. According to Hamilton Project analysis, over the course of a year one in five adults on SNAP transitions at some point from working more than 20 hours per week to working less than that. In other words, about half of SNAP recipients who worked more than 20 hours per week would be sanctioned under the policy at some point. These Americans are not lacking the desire to work and they are not unwilling to exert effort; they are simply unable to obtain stable jobs with adequate hours, and rely on SNAP to help them purchase food.

Currently when a family’s income temporarily declines… they can apply for and receive SNAP while they are experiencing hard times. Inability to receive SNAP during periods of unemployment would fundamentally change that.

What about those who were participating in SNAP but were never employed over the year? There is little reason to think that work requirements would spur them into employment. Many of these individuals face severe employment barriers: Nearly two in three non-workers on SNAP reported that they were not working because of bad health or a disability (despite not receiving disability benefits). Among the remainder, a large share reported that they did not work because they were students or caregivers. The proposed law states that some of these individuals could potentially qualify for an exemption from work requirements — which includes unfitness to work or certain types of caregiving — but many could be subject to sanctions.

There are additional reasons to oppose broad, stringent work requirements in SNAP. They would undermine SNAP’s role as a safety net program. Currently when a family’s income temporarily declines, for example due to job loss, they can apply for and receive SNAP while they are experiencing hard times. Inability to receive SNAP during periods of unemployment would fundamentally change that, and leave temporarily unemployed families with fewer needed resources for food — making it even harder for them to get back on their feet and eventually find another job.

Although the proposed work requirements are ill conceived, it is true that SNAP can do more to help those most in need. An increasing share of the caseload — about one in five households — reports receiving no cash income at all in the month they receive benefits. To the extent that this is happening month after month, caseworkers should be able to intervene with needed resources such as job training or other supports.

There are better ways to encourage employment among the millions of Americans not in the labor market. Expanded incentives and supports, such as an expanded Earned Income Tax Credit, especially for smaller families and childless workers, would likely help, as would targeted government spending, and more and better training opportunities. But these can be implemented without putting low-income families’ food resources at risk.


Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach is Margaret Walker Alexander Professor of Education and Social Policy and Director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She formerly was Director of the Hamilton Project, an economic policy initiative at the Brookings Institution.