The latest debt ceiling agreement threatens to take away food and cash assistance from people with low incomes—especially older women—if they cannot meet harsh work reporting requirements. The latest bill would add another hurdle to accessing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for older Americans ages 50-54 and doubles down on existing SNAP time limits for childless adults under 50 and existing work requirements in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
Work reporting requirements are inequitable, ineffective, and inefficient. And efforts to address our nation’s long-term finances should not come at the expense of people experiencing poverty.
Work reporting requirements are steeped in racism. Policymakers first debuted the SNAP work-hours test in 1996, when President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Responsibility Act (PRWORA), a law that also slashed cash assistance. Anti-Black racism and xenophobia played a foundational role in PRWORA’s creation and passage. The results of this change are well known by social policy experts and people experiencing poverty alike; they were also predicted by one of us (Peter): PRWORA resulted in an increase in poverty, particularly among families of color. One month later, Peter resigned as an Assistant Secretary at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services due to profound disagreement with the law.
Increasing burdens, like work reporting requirements, only hurts employment. Overwhelming evidence shows that taking food away from working families doesn’t improve employment or earnings and likely deepens poverty over time. SNAP already has significant work-based limits, which have taken away benefits from hundreds of thousands of people while not increasing employment. This latest agreement doubles down on the time limit. Work requirements also don’t account for the realities of today’s labor market. Most SNAP participants work, but many work volatile, unstable jobs and face systemic barriers—such as caregiving responsibilities or discrimination—that stand between them and finding quality, stable, and secure employment. Work requirements don’t work—they just make people suffer. And it’s harder to find work when you don’t have enough money to eat.
Burdensome red tape required to administer work requirements is costly to administer and time intensive for all involved. This bill would require SNAP and TANF program administrators to spend more time implementing these requirements, consuming critical state resources. During recessions, these resources are further constrained. SNAP, in particular, works to counteract the economic effects of a recession. Every SNAP dollar spent creates $1.54 in economic activity when the economy is weak.
If we want an America where everyone can provide for their families and has the opportunity to fulfill their potential, we need to remove barriers to work. Forcing people through a maze of burdensome paperwork takes us in the wrong direction.