Farm Bill Series: SNAP Work Requirements Won’t Work for Montana

It’s planting season in Montana – the time of year when we shake off a long winter and look forward to a season of bounty. That makes it the perfect time to discuss the House Agriculture Committee’s Farm Bill. Over the next week, MBPC will be doing a blog series on the GOP’s Farm Bill, particularly its harsh treatment of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP).

SNAP, the country’s most effective anti-hunger program, serves roughly 120,000 Montanans, most of whom are children, elderly, or disabled. The proposed Farm Bill, however, would make it more difficult for all of millions of struggling Americans to put food on the table by imposing harsh work requirements on SNAP recipients. As many as two million SNAP recipients may lose their benefits because of these changes.

With members of Congress home this week to hear from their constituents, let’s address some questions that you might be asking about the changes in the Farm Bill’s work requirements:

Why are work requirements just plain unnecessary?  

SNAP is designed to be a safety net when families encounter a difficult period – such as a loss of a job, an economic downturn, or a disaster like losing a home in a fire. The majority of SNAP recipients who can work already do work.

In Montana, nearly half of households on SNAP are home to children under 18, over half have a member with a disability, and almost one-third have someone 60 years or older.

Of non-disabled, non-elderly adults, more than half receiving SNAP do work in a typical month. Of those who aren’t working in the month studied, half either recently worked or will soon work again. This is because SNAP is not a deterrent to work – it’s a vital safety net when workers lose their jobs.

And SNAP already has stringent work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependent children aged 18-50 (often referred to as ABAWDs). These adults are limited to receiving benefits for 3 months in 3 years unless they are meeting work requirements. Individuals who are pregnant, care for children or an incapacitated household member, or are certified as physically or mentally unfit for employment are exempt from the time limit.

How do the new work requirements cause people to lose SNAP benefits?

The CBO estimates that these new work requirements could knock an estimated 2 million recipients – particularly low-income, working families with kids – off of the SNAP rolls. Losing out on the ability to put food on the table can make an already trying time for a family even more difficult, making it harder to get back their feet.

The proposed Farm Bill imposes much harsher work requirements on SNAP recipients, including those with children. Under the new legislation, workers aged 18-59 who are not disabled or raising a child under age 6, are required to work 80 hours a month (or receive job training), or lose their benefits for a year. After a second violation, they are locked out of the program for three years, unless they re-apply and meet the requirements by working half-time for a month.

Who is hurt by work requirements?

Unlike the current work requirements, which focus on ABAWDs, the work requirements under the new bill would also have harmful consequences for kids, elderly, and disabled Montanans.

Take these scenarios for example:

  • A single mom of an elementary school aged student has to take a week off of work when her daughter comes down with the flu. Because this mom missed a few shifts, she failed to meet her work requirements for the month and has now lost her share of the family’s benefits for the year.
  • A 49 year-old mother takes care of her adult son with developmental disabilities. Because caregiving isn’t exempt under the new bill, she has to choose between leaving him alone during the day to work or losing her SNAP benefits.
  • A 55 year-old cashier was recently laid off has trouble finding a new job because stores only want to hire younger workers. He often has to take his wife to doctor appointments during the day, making finding new work increasingly difficult. He is locked out from his benefits while looking for work.
  • A young father had plenty of work in a local fly-fishing shop during the height of Montana’s tourism season. But when the weather grew colder, his shifts were cut in half and he lost his benefits. He was able to pick up some more work during the holiday season, but in January his shifts were cut again, making him lose his benefits again.

The Farm Bill’s harsh work requirements take food off the table of workers who can’t get enough shifts at their job, children whose parents are struggling to meet the requirements, and disabled or ill adults who might not be able to navigate the complicated bureaucracy to receive exemptions for themselves.

Only about one-quarter of adults not receiving disability benefits don’t work or haven’t worked within a year of receiving SNAP benefits. Out of these adults:

  • 38% are caring for children or other household members.
  • 23% can’t work due to chronic health conditions or impairments.
  • 15% can’t find work.
  • 15% are attending school.

In Montana, 39,000 workers lived in households that received SNAP last year. Thirteen thousand of these workers were in the service industry – a field that often has shifting schedules and unsteady incomes.

So work requirements won’t really help anyone, will they?

Nope. SNAP helps people avoid hunger when they lose their jobs or face another hardship.  Work requirements will serve just to make a difficult situation worse. At a time when Congress just passed a massive, deficit-increasing tax bill, Montana’s congressional delegation should reconsider making lives more difficult for tens of thousands of Montanans.

But workers and families aren’t the only people the proposed Farm Bill hurts. Stay tuned later when we discuss its impacts on Montana’s economy, and our state government. In the meantime, be sure to read our latest report on SNAP: SNAP Helps Grow a Healthy Workforce and a Health Economy.

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