The Food Stamp Work Requirement Is a Scheme to Punish Hungry Americans

Jim Pugh

SNAP has a profound positive impact on hungry families. (Getty)

Grow­ing up in Boonville, Cal­i­for­nia in the 1990s, a friend of mine would some­times jok­ing­ly use the phrase the beat­ings will con­tin­ue until morale improves.” If peo­ple are feel­ing bad, what bet­ter incen­tive to change their mood than get­ting repeat­ed­ly whacked with a stick?

The recent pro­pos­al by Con­gress to add work require­ments to the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP, for­mer­ly known as food stamps) remind­ed me of that phrase. In the 2018 Farm Bill cur­rent­ly under con­sid­er­a­tion in the House, Repub­li­cans have pro­posed new con­di­tions for SNAP that would block many peo­ple from receiv­ing food assis­tance if they are unem­ployed. While at first glance this may appear like a pol­i­cy to encour­age greater employ­ment, it would actu­al­ly make it hard­er for peo­ple to find a job, while tak­ing away cru­cial sup­port from more than one mil­lion hun­gry Americans.

While set­ting more unem­ployed Amer­i­cans on a path to employ­ment and eco­nom­ic self-suf­fi­cien­cy is a pos­i­tive goal, the threat of with­hold­ing food is a high­ly inef­fec­tive way to encour­age work­force par­tic­i­pa­tion. Some of the most com­mon bar­ri­ers to employ­ment are insuf­fi­cient edu­ca­tion or skills, men­tal health issues, hir­ing bias­es and a lack of job oppor­tu­ni­ties. Fear of not hav­ing enough to eat does noth­ing to over­come those obstacles.

When peo­ple are hun­gry, they’re fre­quent­ly unable to focus, which makes it hard­er for them to get a job, not eas­i­er. Instead of boost­ing employ­ment, this pro­pos­al would act as a bar­ri­er rather than an incentive.

The actu­al impact of this pol­i­cy change would be to pun­ish hun­gry Amer­i­cans. In many regions of the coun­try, peo­ple are strug­gling to find full-time work, but can’t. While the over­all unem­ploy­ment rate sits at a low 3.8 per­cent, the rate of invol­un­tary under­em­ploy­ment is more than twice that, and exceeds 10 per­cent in many states and coun­ties. This pro­pos­al would leave those who are unable to find a job with nei­ther income nor food assistance.

Instead of adding poor­ly-designed restric­tions to SNAP, we should be pur­su­ing evi­dence-based pol­i­cy changes to increase the effec­tive­ness of our social pro­grams. As some­one who works on uni­ver­sal basic income pol­i­cy, I’ve spent years study­ing the effects of uncon­di­tion­al ben­e­fits, i.e. what hap­pens when you offer peo­ple sup­port with­out any require­ments on their behav­ior. Every analy­sis has arrived at the same con­clu­sion: When you give peo­ple ben­e­fits with­out strings attached, they use them for pro­duc­tive pur­pos­es. The vast major­i­ty of peo­ple want to do well in life, and they’ll make the most of any sup­port they receive.

When we lay­er on restric­tions and bureau­crat­ic hoops that recip­i­ents must jump through, not only does this not improve people’s behav­ior, it actu­al­ly blocks many peo­ple from receiv­ing much-need­ed sup­port. Even with­out the new work require­ments, SNAP already has many bar­ri­ers to access that make it dif­fi­cult to enroll. In Cal­i­for­nia, the lat­est esti­mates finds that only 70 per­cent of eli­gi­ble res­i­dents receive SNAP ben­e­fits — due in large part to the chal­leng­ing enroll­ment process.

SNAP has a pro­found pos­i­tive impact on hun­gry fam­i­lies. Beyond just pro­vid­ing food secu­ri­ty, recent research has found the pro­gram reduces health­care costs and increas­es eco­nom­ic self-suf­fi­cien­cy for women who received ben­e­fits as chil­dren. We should be striv­ing to boost par­tic­i­pa­tion by remov­ing oner­ous par­tic­i­pa­tion require­ments, with the goal of ensur­ing that every hun­gry Amer­i­can has access to the program.

Our social safe­ty net is far from per­fect — there are many need­ed changes that can help lift more peo­ple out of pover­ty and set them on a path for long-term suc­cess. But if we want to do bet­ter, we should aim to remove bar­ri­ers to access, not pun­ish strug­gling Amer­i­cans by tak­ing food assis­tance away from those who can’t find work.

Jim Pugh is the co-direc­tor of the Uni­ver­sal Income Project.
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