Congress may be on the verge of cutting millions of unemployed people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps) by limiting eligibility to only those adults who are working or in a job training program for at least 20 hours per week. Persons who cannot find a job or get into a job training program would be cut off regardless of their willingness to work or the unemployment rate where they live. There is no funding for workfare or other work activities for those unable to find a job, nor are states required to provide such alternatives.
The Farm Bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives contains two separate provisions that would cut the unemployed off of SNAP. The House and Senate versions of the Farm Bill have gone to a conference committee that began meeting last week and plans to complete its work by the end of November. The Senate version has no comparable provisions.
Adults not raising minor children. Under the federal welfare reforms of 1996, non-disabled adults between the ages of 18 and 50 who are not raising children can receive SNAP benefits for only 3 out of every 36 months unless they are working at least 20 hours per week. However, more than 40 states, including Illinois, have received waivers of this limitation due to their high unemployment rates. The House provision would eliminate these waivers.
This population is among the poorest in America, with an average income of 22 percent of poverty, about $2,500 for a single individual. The vast majority of them do not qualify for any income support program other than SNAP. They are a diverse group—more than 40 percent are women, and one third are over age 40. Many have raised children who are no longer minors.
Proponents of this provision claim that it would limit assistance to only those who are willing to work. This is grossly misleading. Anyone who is not actually working 20 hours per week could receive SNAP benefits only for 3 out of every 36 months, regardless of their willingness to work. Although unemployment rates have been trending downward, there are still three unemployed workers for every job opening.
Adults, including those raising minor children (the Southerland provision). The Southerland amendment is similar except for two additional features. First, it applies not just to childless adults but to all adults unless they are raising a child under age one. The entire families of parents who cannot find a 20-hour per week job would be cut off.
In addition, states would get to keep 50 percent of the savings from cutting the unemployed off of SNAP. This financial incentive would be very enticing for cash-strapped states.
What you can do. Senator Dick Durbin, as the second highest-ranking Democrat in the Senate and with a long history of involvement in Farm Bill issues, is a key player. Send him an email urging him to make sure the Senate rejects these two provisions that would cut the unemployed off SNAP. Be sure to include “Farm Bill” in the subject line so that your email is routed to the appropriate staff person. Send your email as soon as possible—decisions are being made every day.