Proposed changes to SNAP won’t put people to work – but they will result in more people going hungry

USDA photo by Bob Nichols.

More than 800,000 Oklahomans need help putting food on the table every year, and they get that help through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps). In Oklahoma, SNAP provides help purchasing groceries for children, seniors, people with disabilities, and the working poor. SNAP also boosts the Oklahoma economy, bringing back $890 million to our grocers in 2017. But now these important benefits to individuals and Oklahoma are under attack.

Last month, the House Committee on Agriculture approved a proposed farm bill that will make significant changes to SNAP, including radical changes to the program’s work requirements. It would require more families to meet stricter requirements, and to do so more often.  Most adults with children would be required to work at least 20 hours each week, and to prove that they’re meeting this standard every month. This will be a tall order for many workers and those trying to find work, and it will likely mean a reduction (or a total elimination) of food assistance for many of them.

SNAP is not a jobs program. It’s a nutrition program – and it’s a really good one.

Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP is fundamentally a nutrition program.  Housed in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), its aim is to help put food on the tables of families who are struggling to afford a nutritious diet – and it does this extremely well. Put simply, SNAP works.  It helps to reduce hunger and alleviate malnutrition. It works to reduce poverty (especially extreme poverty) and improves health outcomes for recipients.

SNAP is an important program for a lot of Oklahomans. Last year, over 850,000 of us used SNAP at some point in the year. With an average monthly benefit of just $121 per person in 2017, it’s not a lot. But for families that often run short of money each month, that small benefit means not having to choose between paying the utility bill and buying groceries. SNAP benefits are an essential boost for many working families in Oklahoma. 

And many Oklahoma workers really do need that boost. In 2016, 28.7 percent of Oklahoma jobs were low-wage – meaning that they paid less than the poverty threshold for a family of four. In addition to low pay, these jobs are likely to come with a fluctuating work schedule and no paid sick leave.

Harsher work requirements will harm those who are already working (and that’s most adults on SNAP).

The truth is that most adults who use SNAP to afford groceries do work. More than half of adults in SNAP households who can reasonably be expected to work are working, and more than 4 in 5 have worked at some point in the year before or the year after they received those crucial benefits. SNAP already requires most working-age adults to register for work and accept a job if offered, and states have the option to impose tougher requirements and cut off benefits for those who don’t comply. Making the work requirements (which most are trying to meet) more strict will likely result in a lot of families with reduced access to food.

Regardless of the fact that most people on SNAP who can work already do work, the new farm bill would require that workers prove, every month, that they’ve worked 20 hours each week. This will be a challenge. Hourly workers, especially, will have trouble meeting this standard. As they have little control over their own schedules, they may get 25 hours one week, 10 the next, and then 15 the following week. A lack of paid sick leave for most of these workers will further complicate things.  One or two days off to recover from their own illness or care for a sick child will likely put them below 20 hours for the week.

Working families will suffer under the work requirements in this farm bill proposal.  People who are, in fact, working will almost certainly see a reduction or total elimination of their food assistance. The first time you fail to meet the requirement, you lose your individual benefits for 12 months – and the next time, your benefits are gone for three years unless you can prove you’re back to work for 20 hours per week. This will create terrible choices that no working family should have to face: should I pay the electric bill or go to the grocery store? Will there be enough for me to eat after my children have been fed? And the choices will be even more dire for those who are not working.

Increased funding for employment and training programs won’t come close to meeting the need.

Under the new farm bill, most adults on SNAP who aren’t currently working will have one month to begin meeting the 20 hour per week requirement.  Increased funding is provided to help with training and finding employment, but it works out to about $30 per month for each person who will likely need this help. That’s a huge problem. Comparable education and training programs cost a minimum of roughly $400 per month per participant.  The meager $30 a month provided in the farm bill proposal simply won’t be enough to provide adequate help to everyone who will need it to keep their food assistance.

The real result of the proposed changes to SNAP work requirements will be an increase in hunger, not an increase in work.  The Congressional Budget Office estimates that SNAP benefits will be slashed by $9 billion between 2019 and 2028, and the bulk of that money is likely to come from families losing some or all of their benefits because they couldn’t work enough. This leads to more food insecurity, and that won’t help anyone find new or more work. It will just make them hungrier, less healthy, and less able to find or keep a job.

But this doesn’t have to happen.  The proposal by the House Committee on Agriculture is now waiting to be considered by the full House of Representatives.  Contact your representative today and ask them to oppose these radical changes to SNAP that will leave many Oklahomans hungry.

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Courtney Cullison worked for OK Policy from 2017 to 2020 as a policy analyst focused on issues of economic opportunity and financial security. Before coming to OK Policy, Courtney worked in higher education, holding faculty positions at the University of Texas at Tyler and at Connors State College in eastern Oklahoma. A native Oklahoman, she received an Honors B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. with emphasis in congressional politics and public policy from the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Courtney was a fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. As a professor she taught classes in American politics, public policy, and research methods and conducted original research with a focus on the relationship between representatives and the constituents they serve.

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