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Anzilotti writes: "On April 1, at least half a million Americans will wake up no longer eligible for the food assistance benefits that have, for decades, been a crucial lifeline for the poor in a harsh economic landscape."

Walmart customer makes purchase with Food Stamps. (photo: Getty)
Walmart customer makes purchase with Food Stamps. (photo: Getty)

More Than 500,000 Americans Stand to Lose SNAP Benefits on April 1st

By Eillie Anzilotti, City Lab

31 March 16


On April 1, a federal provision tying food assistance to a work requirement will leave the unemployed poor in a lurch.

n April 1, at least half a million Americans will wake up no longer eligible for the food assistance benefits that have, for decades, been a crucial lifeline for the poor in a harsh economic landscape.

A clause in the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act limited Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to three months in any given 36-month period for unemployed adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who are not working or enrolled in a job-training or community service program at least 20 hours per week.

During the economic downturn, many states instituted waivers to override these limits. But now that the employment rate has improved, the restrictions came back into effect in 40 states on January 1, 2016—meaning that some recipients will start feeling the impacts in April. The possibility of the time limit’s reimplementation began to trickle down from the federal government to the states around this time last year, but the exact areas and the precise number of people to be affected remained unclear until national and regional unemployment rates were confirmed around November of 2015.

Now, faced with the threat of millions of people struggling to make ends meet, state and local charities are shouldering the daunting task of picking up the slack.

The origins of the time limits

At the time the law was introduced, the American economy was prospering; job opportunities were on the rise. According to a recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, supporters of the time limit on SNAP benefits framed the provision as an impetus toward employment. The bill’s sponsors alluded to two means of skirting any potentially draconian implementations: one whereby states would ensure that those unable to find employment were enrolled in job-training programs; another which offered waivers to states sustaining unemployment rates higher than the national average. However, arguing for the provision on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, the bill’s sponsor—then-representative John Kasich—overstated the ease of securing job training. The text of the provision did not require states to offer people spots in work-training programs, or offer funding to create new ones.

But regions with high and sustained unemployment rates were able to waive the limits. At various points throughout the recession, every state but Delaware did so. NPR reports that:

In order to waive the time limit, states generally need to prove a region has an unemployment rate above 10 percent, a surplus of workers as acknowledged by the Department of Labor or unemployment rate 20 percent higher than the national average for two years in a row.

With jobs scarce across all sectors and demographics, it seemed nonsensical to impose a three-month time limit on receiving SNAP benefits while looking for a job. In areas with waivers in place, SNAP recipients collected between $150 and $170 per month as the nation pushed on through a deeply unfavorable labor market.

But unemployment rates have since fallen. More than half of the 40 states reinstating time limits had not imposed such restrictions since before the recession. The cutoffs will leave an unprecedented number of people without a safety net—save for already-strained local charities.

Who will be affected?

Those staring down the time limit are sometimes called ABAWDs—able-bodied adults without dependents. They are a diverse population, stratified racially and split on gender, with nearly 40 percent living in urban areas. What they have in common, crucially, is extreme poverty.

Any single-person household earning less than $12,000 per year is living below the poverty line. The gross average income of ABWADs on SNAP is dramatically lower—just 17 percent of that, or roughly $2,000 per year, notes the CBPP report.

The three-month limit, says Pat Baker, a senior policy an analyst at the Massachussetts Law Reform Institute, functions as “a superficial, knee-jerk reaction that people who don’t have kids and who aren’t visibly disabled should be able to find work.”

But the provision ignores myriad factors that make employment difficult for many people within this demographic. For one thing, there’s the issue of transportation: “How are you going to get yourself to a job if you don’t have a car or access to public transit?” Baker asks. Exemptions to the cutoff are granted on the basis of physical and mental health problems, among other reasons, such as chronic homelessness or participation in a rehabilitation program. (Some examples appear in the chart above.) But securing an exemption requires recognizing the possible exemptions in the first place, says Baker. Then, in order to continue to using SNAP benefits, the recipient has to embark on a complicated, document-laden process to prove one’s need.

“It’s death by a thousand paper cuts,” Baker says. She recalls working with people in her home state of Massachusetts when the time limit first came into effect in 1997. “The sheer amount of paperwork required to get the benefits restored was too much. People just gave up.”

Working against the labor market

While the economy has recovered since the recession, jobs are still hard to come by. The unemployment rate has dipped below 5 percent for the first time since February of 2008, but month to month, the number of jobs added sometimes misses the mark. And despite the efforts of lawmakers like Richard Blumenthal, a senator from Connecticut, to introduce a federal bill forbidding states to cut benefits on the basis of a work requirement without offering an individual a spot in a job-training program (like those originally promised by the provision’s authors), there is no uniform system in place to guarantee a way to fulfill the required 20-hour work minimum. Searching for a job doesn’t count.

The law does allow people to fulfill the work requirement through a combination of paid employment and volunteer work, but the latter, Baker says, is not as simple as just showing up. Many community-service based opportunities are already filled to capacity with those mandated to be there as part of their parole, and each new volunteer requires a costly background check—and employers may be unwilling to spend to bring on a new part-time volunteer. And on top of that, there’s the documentation: Each hour must be tallied and verified monthly before benefits can be collected.

Where states have stepped up

“It’s been very hard for states get out in front of this,” Baker says. “This is an extremely difficult federal rule to implement and protect people from.” Many states have not had to enforce the time limits in over a decade; this year, they are scrambling to figure out how to do so on very short notice.

This is the first year that New York, for instance, has not qualified for a statewide waiver. In response, “the state government really dug deep into the numbers to try to secure waivers for as many areas of the state as possible,” says Triada Stampas, the vice president for research and policy affairs at the Food Bank for New York City.

These efforts resulted in a strange patchwork map of New York City: Four out of the five boroughs qualify for a waiver, as do the four community boards of northern Manhattan, around Harlem. But the time limit will come into effect in the areas south of 110th Street on the West side and 96th street on the East. Employment rates are technically high in those districts, but still, there are more than 140,000 food-insecure people, Stampas says. Not all are ABAWDs who will be subjected to the time limit, she adds, but “it shows that the law doesn’t care about individual circumstances or need; it’s about where you live, and the prevailing economic circumstances of your neighborhood.”

(photo: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities/

Some states in the Southeast, among them Arkansas, Florida, and Mississippi, have elected to forgo statewide waivers despite qualifying on the basis of high unemployment rates. The CBPP predicts that those states will be particularly hard-hit by the cutoffs. But in other states—among them New York, Massachusetts, and Oregon—government and charity organizations have been working hard in the face of what Stampas calls “the ticking clock” to raise awareness in communities that will be affected.

In Oregon, two counties, Washington and Multnomah, where Portland is seated, did not qualify for a waiver. Initially, the state predicted 30,000 people would lose SNAP benefits. (In 1998, that number was 4,500.) But now, through the sustained efforts of advocacy organizations to connect people with caseworkers to walk them through the exemption process, that number has gone down to around 10,000.

Even so, says Matt Newell-Ching, the public affairs director for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, “that’s 10,000 people who, come April 1, are going to be stranded.”

“Just go to the food bank”

The USDA has a response to those for whom the clock has run out, and who could not qualify for an exemption or come into compliance with the work requirement: “Contact your local food bank. They can help you find food to get through the tough times.”

Food banks, however, are still reeling from the effects of the 2013 cuts to federal spending on SNAP. “The incidence of food shortage at pantries has just been unacceptably high,” Stampas says. Research released by the Food Bank for NYC last fall indicates that over the course of a month, nearly half of all food banks surveyed ran out of the supplies needed to compile adequate pantry bags.

The 2013 “hunger cliff” was a result of benefit reductions; with up to one million people now standing to lose their benefits over the course of 2016, the need will be even greater. This holds true across the country. “We don’t know what to expect after April 1,” says Elizabeth Bradbury of the Second Harvest Food Bank Middle Tennessee in Nashville. “We’ve never gone through this before.” Newell-Ching echoes her sentiment. “Food banks here in Oregon are bracing themselves,” he says.

Food banks, Stampas adds, are designed as emergency measures, fueled by compassionate donations that will not go far enough to meet the need created by the abdication of the government. “We don’t have the resources to take on the continued erosion of our safety net,” Stampas says.

“We’re not viewing this as our hero moment,” Stampas says. Because fundamentally, there’s a larger issue at play, and it has to do with the denial of a basic survival necessity: food. Removing people’s access to food, Stampas says, helps no one. Starving people will not incentivize them to find work; it will only make an already arduous process borderline impossible.

“A policy like this doesn’t work when the economic conditions shift,” Stampas adds. “SNAP is an entitlement program: it is designed to provide resources to anyone who needs them.” The time-limit clause, she says, “is antithetical to the origins and intent of the program. And charity cannot take the place of policy.” your social media marketing partner


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+9 # PCPrincess 2016-03-31 09:15
Note: I can't say what the rule is in 2016 in California, however, I will note that for many years including up to 2015, those who were in college, including those in four-year colleges earning bachelor's degrees, did NOT qualify as a waiver. This meant that those who were on SNAP without a child in college, would also be forced to work or 'look' for work for at least 20 hours on top of attending college full-time just to satisfy the ridiculous time limit requirement. I've had case workers from the Human Services Agency admit that the law tends to assert to those who would rather earn a degree to better themselves and their chances of earning a living wage, that the only way to put food on the table was to forego college for a part-time job at minimum wage. It is absolute nonsense.
+13 # reiverpacific 2016-03-31 09:57
This dehumanizing policy will simply create more and more ANGRY voters!!!!
ONLY in America, "Land of the Free-to-be-poor , impoverished and hungry"!
+10 # Buddha 2016-03-31 10:29
And the ripple effect of this on the economy is certain to be seen soon thereafter...ri ght as we go into an election...and most uninformed voters will blame Obama, as always, not the GOP Congress who is really to blame. I'm not so naive to believe that this timing of benefits ending and its effect on our economy weren't deliberate.
-10 # soaringdove 2016-03-31 12:59
It is a lie that employment numbers have improved (see and there is AMPLE reason to blame Obama for this deplorable state of affairs after it has been he (in last 7 yrs) who has thrown open the flood gates to thousands of foreign born (i.e. "immigrants" "aliens" "refugees") which, in turn, has seen them benevolently provided with a full plate of amenities (welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, SS, ease of access) in order to better transition into their new host country. Yet, rarely have these individuals or family members paid a dime into any of the tax-derived or funding dedicated programs.

Whereas there used to be a 'common sense cap' on annual numbers of incoming foreign born, this was (for political reasons) demolished in the 70's...and during Obama's tenure so have numbers increased significantly.. .even though since he took office so has the resident population (those born here) been severely challenged by the increasing loss of jobs (outsourcing), loss of savings, insurance, health, homes, you name it...which is why we now have the highest number of American citizens (including Vets) who are homeless.

Simply put, it makes NO sense to further challenge a country when the native population is already in dire straits. Thus, this now punitive action by the government will only increase the numbers who suffer due to abysmal lack of basic needs. This is wrong when there are so few living wage jobs AND the manipulated competition has increased.
+11 # REDPILLED 2016-03-31 10:07
Meanwhile, government subsidies to Big Coal and Big Oil, both of which are accelerating Catastrophic Climate Disaster, continue.
+10 # PaulK 2016-03-31 10:26
No food, and just in time for the New York primary. You'll never guess who wrote the 1996 act.
+18 # Old Uncle Dave 2016-03-31 11:06
The US gives over ten million US tax dollars a day to apartheid Israel so they can buy more bullets and bombs from american arms manufacturers. Apparently the rulers think killing poor Palestinians is more important than feeding poor Americans.
+6 # CarolYost 2016-03-31 11:44
You're damn right!
-6 # Robbee 2016-03-31 12:11
oops! how did we wander into a thread that contrasts dem policies from GOP policies?

our rsn hill-bashers maintain there is ABSOLUTELY no difference between a dem like hill and ANY GOP slime - hill-bashers boycott such threads as this! - hill-bashers choose other threads where they shovel their shit at us and hope to keep us in the dark!

just wondering! - why, whenever there's a story featuring GOP oppression, like this one! - do we never hear our rsn cockroaches ranting how hill is just as bad as a zomblican? - why? oh why?

cockroaches! do i have to call you out? by hash tag? where? oh where? did you all scurry off and hide? - did this article shine a light on a real zomblican? - is this a bad time to peddle your cock-eyed pledge not to vote dem unless it's bernie? if we can’t have bernie, to elect some GOP slime?

down with RAP! - Republicans Against Progress! - down with GOP! - listen to bernie! - go bernie!

we have no reason to hate lesser progressive hill! - only a billion reasons to prefer bernie! - go bernie!
+2 # Candie 2016-04-01 09:19
Oh Snap!! Vote for Bernie!!!!

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