For 'SNAP' to Work, It Must Emphasize More Work

For 'SNAP' to Work, It Must Emphasize More Work
Roland Weihrauch/dpa via AP
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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) has a significant flaw: It does not sufficiently emphasize work. The program does a good job helping America’s poor afford food for their families, but up until recently SNAP administrators’ principal aim has been to add recipients to its rolls rather than help them find employment. As a result, many recipients could be working but are not, despite the fact that recipients who can and do work even a little are far less likely to be poor or live in households reporting difficulty affording food.

Several elements within House Republicans’ pending Farm Bill would help improve SNAP by encouraging work and earnings to fight poverty at its roots.

When we talk about increasing work among SNAP recipients, we must be clear about who we are not talking about. We are not talking about children, the elderly, adults with disabilities, or those taking care of young children or disabled relatives.

Even narrowing down the target demographic to healthy adults on SNAP who are not working leaves a significant number of Americans -- roughly 9.5 million -- who could work but do not. The problem begins in Washington: I know from my time as New York’s administrator of SNAP that everyone from case managers to administrators has been told that increasing employment is not their job. So SNAP is helpful, but it is not a road out of poverty. One quote from a SNAP enrollee has resonated with me: “That program is great at getting me an EBT card [electronic food stamps benefits] but does nothing to get me a job.”

So how does the proposed Farm Bill achieve this objective? A modest activity requirement for SNAP recipients ages 18 to 59 who are not caretakers of young children or disabled in any way. The requirement can be fulfilled by spending twenty hours each week in activities as diverse as volunteering, workforce training, education, or community service. For those currently out of work, the bill also expands training programs to give them skills to reenter the workforce, committing an additional $1 billion to make that happen. Importantly, states would not be allowed to sanction recipients for noncompliance without offering an available activity. For households with school-age children, the sanction for noncompliance would be restricted to a reduction in benefits — not a termination.

Few who assess SNAP think that an activity requirement is categorically wrong, and the modest terms of this proposal should allow for a consensus that reflects the opinions of Americans broadly. Eighty-seven percent of Americans — including eighty-one percent of people in poverty — agree that welfare programs should nudge the poor to work or participate in a training program (if they are physically able to do so) in return for benefits. Nearly everyone recognizes that the purpose of antipoverty programs such as SNAP should be to help people get back on their feet, earn their own livelihoods, and stay out of poverty for good.

The Farm Bill would also encourage earning and saving by improving the policy of “asset testing.” Households would now be able to own assets up to $7,000 (and more for homes with elderly or disabled people) without the risk of losing benefits. But in setting a firm asset limit, the bill would not allow states to waive the test. This prevents people with substantial assets from taking advantage of the program.

One last way SNAP can be more than just a benefit card is by helping to obtain child support from noncustodial parents of children receiving SNAP benefits. This Farm Bill would require states to ensure that children in single-parent families receive the child support they deserve by mandating that custodial parents seeking SNAP benefits cooperate in establishing child support orders. Less than half of poor single-parent families — many of whom are SNAP recipients — currently have formal child support orders in place, which leaves poor custodial parents without the money they need to support their children.

I have found the rhetoric surrounding work requirements from some who ostensibly want to help the poor to be baffling. For some reason we keep hearing about how entry-level jobs are not worth poor Americans’ time, that government aid is a fundamental right that comes with no responsibility, or even that having some earnings won’t make SNAP recipients better off, all of which flies in the face of everything we have learned about poverty, responsibility, and mobility. To me -- someone who administered social services programs for former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- this rhetoric is more harmful to the poor than the modest work requirements proposed in this bill.

Over the years SNAP has reduced hunger for poor Americans, but has been less successful in helping them escape poverty for good. The Farm Bill’s reforms are a good way to help people in need find and retain employment. They are an important step toward realizing SNAP’s proper mission as an antipoverty program.

Robert Doar is the Morgridge Fellow in Poverty Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. From 2007 to 2013, he was the commissioner of the New York City Human Resources Administration, the city agency responsible for the cash welfare, food stamp and Medicaid programs. 

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