Maine’s SNAP Cutoff Foreshadows Tough Times for Poor Jobless Workers

February 4, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Maine cut several thousand people off SNAP (food stamps) this month after re-imposing a time limit on benefits for childless adults who aren’t working at least 20 hours per week — regardless of how hard they’re looking for a job.  The move foreshadows tough times for very poor unemployed workers across the country who can’t find work as the time limit returns in more areas.  Up to 1 million low-income unemployed adults risk losing SNAP benefits over the course of 2016.

The 1996 welfare law, which established the three-month limit, allowed states to waive it temporarily in areas with high unemployment.  Most governors have used this flexibility in recent years to suspend the time limit in response to the severe impact of the recession.  As the economy recovers and unemployment falls, though, more people will face the time limit.

Maine Governor Paul LePage chose to re-impose the time limit even though Maine’s unemployment was high enough to continue waiving it.  Some areas, like Piscataquis County, still struggle with unemployment rates over 8 percent.

The loss of SNAP benefits can have a serious impact.  People subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of about 19 percent of the poverty line (about $2,200 per year for a household of one in 2014) and typically don’t qualify for other income support.

The time limit is especially harsh because state and local agencies don’t need to help the affected people find jobs or provide a place in a job training program that would allow them to keep benefits.

Unfortunately, the President’s 2016 budget doesn’t propose modifying the time limit to make it fairer, such as by requiring state SNAP agencies or local workforce programs to offer a work or training slot to people facing the loss of food benefits.  The budget boosts SNAP job training funds by $25 million per year, but that’s only enough, at best, to provide a place for one in ten people at risk of losing assistance.

Congress still has time to address this problem by reconsidering the harsh time limit and establishing a more reasonable work requirement.

Who Are the People Who Will Lose SNAP Next Year?

January 13, 2015 at 3:36 pm

This infographic summarizes basic facts about unemployed childless adults receiving SNAP (formerly food stamps), roughly 1 million of whom will be cut off SNAP over the course of 2016 — regardless of how hard they are looking for work — as a three-month time limit on benefits returns in many areas.  (Click here for full image. Click here for printable version.)

Congress should revise the harsh three-month cutoff to better accomplish its stated goal of testing individuals’ willingness to work.  If it doesn’t, some of the nation’s poorest people will lose an average of $150 to $200 a month in benefits.  This means food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens can expect a sustained increase in food requests because “there are not very many options to get help when you need food,” the operations director of a Bozeman, Montana, food bank explains.  Also, homeless shelters may see an increase in need as some people forgo rent payments to buy food.

1 Million People Facing Cutoff of SNAP Benefits Next Year

January 7, 2015 at 12:18 pm

Roughly 1 million of the nation’s poorest people will be cut off SNAP (formerly food stamps) over the course of 2016 — even if they’re looking for a job but can’t find one —because a three-month time limit on benefits for unemployed childless adults who aren’t disabled will return in many geographic areas.

As our new report explains, the affected people will lose an average of $150 to $200 per person per month.  For this group, that’s a dramatic loss.  People subject to the three-month limit have average monthly income of about 19 percent of the poverty line (about $2,200 per year for a household of one in 2014), and they typically don’t qualify for other income support.

Part of the 1996 welfare law, the three-month limit hasn’t been in effect in most states in recent years because states can waive it temporarily in areas with high unemployment.  But as unemployment rates fall, fewer areas will qualify for waivers, even though many people —including many lower-skilled workers — who want to work still can’t find jobs.  People subject to the three-month limit generally have limited education and skills and limited job prospects.

Some states that have already imposed the time limit have seen SNAP caseloads drop sharply — much faster than the slow decline they’d experienced due to an improving economy.  (In this economic recovery, like previous ones, SNAP caseloads have fallen as unemployment has improved.)  In Kansas, for example, the caseload decline three months after the time limit returned was more than triple the previous trend (see graph).

Unemployed childless adults can continue to receive SNAP beyond three months by participating in a work or training program for at least 20 hours a week.  But very few states provide these programs to all who need them.  As a result, someone who wants to work but can’t find a job, and is willing to participate in job training but has no opportunity to do so, will lose his or her SNAP benefits after three months.

Congress still has time to mitigate the harm.  It could, for example, require a state to offer a job or training position or other work activity — or require job search — for all adults subject to the limit and continue benefits for all who comply.  Without any such action, food banks, pantries, and soup kitchens can expect a sustained increase in food requests from this large and widespread loss of assistance.

What’s more, community groups and service providers such as homeless shelters, low-income veterans’ groups, job training centers, and health clinics count on SNAP as a resource for their clients.  Those losing SNAP may be forced to choose between food and other necessities, like rent or medicine.

It’s not too early for states, community partners, and nonprofits to start preparing for the return of the three-month limit, which will have a big impact on the people they serve.

Hardship in America, 2013: SNAP Cuts Are No Cause for Thanks

November 27, 2013 at 9:02 am

As Thanksgiving approaches, we’ve taken a closer look this week at hardship in America.  Our final post in the series explains how cuts to SNAP are affecting families.

This Thanksgiving Day, while many of us try to find room on the table for yet another pumpkin pie, many Americans who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) will face empty cupboards.  Ordinarily, most SNAP households run out of benefits before the end of each month (see chart).  And now, that’s happening earlier in the month, because every participating household had its benefits cut beginning November 1 when a temporary benefit boost from 2009 expired.

The cut, which averages $29 a month for a family of three, may not sound like a lot to those who don’t struggle to put food on the table.  But for that family of three, it’s the equivalent of taking away 16 meals a month.

These families simply don’t have the ability to make up that loss.  SNAP participants are poor, as we explained yesterday.  Four in five SNAP recipients have gross incomes below the poverty line (about $23,500 for a family of four), with two in five households below half of the poverty line.  They rely on SNAP’s assistance to purchase nutritious food; benefit levels afford no room for luxuries.

Charities have already reported rising numbers of people seeking food assistance since benefits were reduced.  Further cuts — such as those proposed by the House of Representatives that would drop up to 4 million people from SNAP — would leave many more people without adequate food during this season of thanksgiving.

States Taking the Lead in Making Work Supports More Efficient

July 31, 2013 at 3:45 pm

Some federal lawmakers have been ramping up their attacks on public benefit programs, most recently at a House Ways and Means hearing today on the need to reform the programs to get people “real help.”  Fortunately, at the same hearing, lawmakers heard that a number of states are already doing this — streamlining and better coordinating the programs and services that support low-wage work.

Illinois Health and Human Services Secretary Michele Saddler outlined the state’s transformation of several key programs — like SNAP (food stamps), Medicaid, and child care — to help low-income families keep and maintain jobs.

With the support of Work Support Strategies, a foundation-funded initiative, Illinois is simplifying and aligning policies across programs and investing in new technology to make it easier for families to apply and easier for the state to verify their information.  (CBPP leads the technical assistance for Work Support Strategies.)

The goal is simple yet powerful:  people seeking assistance need only tell their story once to get the supports they need.  As Saddler explains:

When I began, our benefit delivery system was broken. Families had to apply multiple times to get the assistance their family desperately needed. They had to take hours or even days off of work to sit in a local office to get help, potentially losing the very work we encourage. Our focus has been on finding and creating efficiencies in this system, seeking a better environment for customers and staff. A more efficient and accessible system leads to greater stability for families and ultimately saves the government future costs of benefits and administration.

Colorado, Idaho, North Carolina, Rhode Island, and South Carolina also participate in Work Support Strategies.  Together, they are showing that states that differ politically, geographically, and demographically can find common ground in maximizing efficiency and improving access to critical work supports.

That should be no surprise.  After all, every state has faced challenges stemming from the Great Recession, including increased need, budget cuts, and staff reductions, so every state stands to benefit from making its work supports more efficient and its low-income residents more successful.  Let’s hope Congress hears the news.