GOP’s proposed expansion of SNAP work requirements targets many low-income people in their early 50s – but many of them already work

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The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The big idea

Roughly half of the people who would be affected by a proposed expansion of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work requirements already do what’s needed to meet those requirements. There’s also evidence suggesting that many of the rest have caregiving or health conditions that prevent them from working.

Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP helps low-income people buy groceries.

Republicans want the federal government to make SNAP benefits for adults age 50 to 55 without dependents or disabilities contingent on spending 80 hours per month on work activities, which may include employment, short-term training and community service. This proposed change is in a package that the Republican-led House of Representatives passed in April 2023 that seeks to cut spending on several social programs.

Currently, the requirements only apply to adults under 50 without dependents who aren’t disabled.

We’re basing these estimates on our analysis of nationally representative time-diary data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ American Time Use Survey.

We analyzed the time that low-income Americans ages 50-55 who didn’t have a disability or child at home spent working, caring for others or dealing with their personal health and well-being from 2012 to 2021.

We found that in most years, more than half of them worked at least 20 hours per week. We estimated that, on average, those who met the work requirement actually worked about 41-51 hours per week – a full-time schedule.

We also determined that relative to their counterparts who met the work requirements, those who did not spent 10 times as much time managing their own health, five times as much time on child care, and more than five times as much time caring for an elderly or disabled adult.

Why it matters

The GOP bill is grounded in a belief that people who get SNAP benefits and aid through other assistance programs are not employed but capable of working, and that enforcing work requirements can increase employment and earnings.

But that’s a misconception.

This measure and several others like it are part of a package that would raise the debt limit to avert a potential U.S. default and a global economic crisis.

Our findings support widespread concerns that expanding SNAP work requirements would sever food assistance benefits for an estimated 275,000 low-income people between the ages of 50 and 55, including many with health conditions and who care for others.

That’s troubling because the cost of professional child care and elder care, as well as the care for the disabled, is very high in the U.S.

It’s reasonable to expect that the new work requirements would force many people to make hard choices between the caregiving arrangements for their loved ones and keeping their benefits. Also, since people who have poor health may not be able to work, they may find themselves unable to put food on the table if they lose SNAP benefits.

What other research is being done

SNAP is associated with many positive trends beyond getting enough to eat. These include spending less on health care, having better health and becoming more financially secure.

Further, when Americans use SNAP to buy groceries, studies have shown that it stimulates the economy where they live, supporting low-income communities.

Additional research has found that work requirements tied to aid programs don’t get more low-income people to enter the labor force. Studies also have found that these policies cause many people who are eligible for assistance to lose their benefits due to paperwork hassles and unclear guidelines.

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