Contrary to the Right’s frequently invoked “welfare queen” political imagery, the majority of people on food stamps are seniors, children or disabled — groups that are exempt from the program’s work requirements. There are, however, some basic work registration requirements for adults. Most notably, if you’re an able-bodied adult without any children, you’re only able to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for three months every three years — that is, unless you can find a job or enroll in an approved job training program.
That provision has been on the books since 1996, when a Republican-majority Congress and President Bill Clinton passed welfare reform. Back then, the authors of the legislation acknowledged that the three-month time limit was perhaps a little harsh, so they decided to allow states to request waivers to exempt themselves from that provision during times of high unemployment. Still reeling from the effects of the recession, 46 states are still currently using waivers — something the current GOP apparently finds to be overly generous. As part of a larger $40 billion cut to food stamps, House Republicans recently voted to eliminate that state waiver authority, a move that the Congressional Budget Office estimates would throw 1.7 million people off SNAP.
The people who would be impacted by the termination of state waivers are some of the most destitute in the country — individuals with average incomes at about 22 percent of the poverty line, or about $2,500 a year. According to Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, many of the people affected are “on the margins:” often ineligible for other welfare programs and barely making ends meet. The group includes homeless people and many individuals subject to domestic abuse and violence.
The Republican argument is that these unemployed food stamp recipients will take initiative. They’ll either find a job or enroll in one of the approved programs if they want to keep receiving benefits full-time. As Majority Leader Eric Cantor, who helped author the legislation, put it, “No law-abiding beneficiary who … is willing to comply with applicable work requirements will lose benefits.”
But that’s just not the case for many SNAP recipients, say advocates for low-income assistance.
“If you think about able-bodied adults who are on food stamps who could be working but aren’t, the reason for that is probably either because there are no jobs in their community or because those people have very low skills,” says Rachel Gragg, federal policy director at the National Skills Coalition, which pushes for more investment in federal job training programs.
Republicans might argue that SNAP recipients who have trouble finding work can simply turn to one of the existing work training programs. There are doubts, however, as to whether the existing job-training infrastructure could support that kind of influx. Many of those programs face budget problems of their own and are already serving a number of different populations — and the House bill does not actually create any new training opportunities.
“It’s just laughable to make the claim they can just be absorbed into these programs,” says Gragg. “The idea that there’s just all this unused capacity in workforce development is ridiculous. They have destroyed existing capacity with the funding cuts that have been going on for the last decade that they have made worse through the sequester and the Budget Control Act.”
Since SNAP is such a highly devolved program, with different rules applying from state to state, participants could theoretically choose from a number of different job training programs in order to continue receiving full-time benefits. It all depends on what individual states decide to allow. Some options might include enrollment in a Workforce Investment Act (WIA) program, or an adult basic education program. It could also include enrollment in a state-run SNAP employment and training (E&T) program — which, for the most part, currently serve only so-called “voluntary” participants, not the rush of “mandatory” participants that could theoretically result from the bill. The former group’s eligibility for food stamps doesn’t actually hinge on its participation in the program.
As Gragg points out, many of these job training programs are facing massive funding cuts. Spending on Workforce Investment Act programs has decreased by almost $370 million since 2010. In that same time period, spending on career and technical education state grants and adult education programs declined by more than $185 million. Even the House bill on food stamps includes a substantial 12 percent cut to SNAP employment and training programs — seemingly the most appropriate fit for an influx of food stamp recipients who must fulfill their work requirements.
At the same time, demand for these programs has skyrocketed. Participation in WIA programs, for instance, has increased by about 250 percent over the last five years. Meanwhile, a 2010 survey found that 160,000 Americans were on wait lists for adult education programs — a number that is likely to grow after sequestration’s additional cuts to education.
Former state government staffers agree that the waiver cuts would strain job training opportunities beyond capacity. “The current WIA programs, the current employment and training system, which is already under duress, would not be able to absorb the population,” says Rick Krauss, a former administrator with the Washington State Department of Social Health Services. “Virtually they would stay in poverty and not be able to move up. And I think a lot of them would lose their food benefits too because there wouldn’t be opportunity to go beyond the three months to get continued food assistance.”
Krauss, who started working for the department before the state benefited from an unemployment waiver, emphasizes that current job training programs aren’t meant to accommodate the mandatory SNAP participants in question. WIA programs, for instance, which often serve laid-off workers looking to enter new industries, aren’t designed to train a population with lower levels of education and skills.
Dean also notes that the local workforce boards in charge of implementing WIA don’t plan their programs to meet SNAP requirements. “So even if [training programs] had slots, they might not be qualifying slots,” she says.
And there’s yet another way that the House bill could undermine the very work training infrastructure Republicans are telling some food stamp recipients they’ll have to rely on. The bill’s so-called “Southerland provision,” named for Rep. Steve Southerland (R‑Fla.) would give states the authority to drop all SNAP benefits for able-bodied adults who are not working or participating in a training program at least 20 hours a week. States declining to take up the option would lose federal matching funds for all of their existing SNAP employment and training programs — effectively leaving no recourse for adults trying to qualify for benefits through rapidly narrowing avenues.
“The thing that’s so pernicious about the House bill is that unless states are willing to adopt these new [work] requirements that are part of the bill, they’ll lose the bulk of the funding that would be available to pay for SNAP [employment and training] and to make sure that the people who are affected by the loss of the waivers actually have some place to go,” Gragg says. “It’s complicated, but it’s incredibly damaging when you put the pieces together. The end result is that you have a lot more people who need access to education and training services at the same time the bill is proposing to potentially eliminate the funding that states need to run those programs.”
In its current form, the House bill has virtually no shot at becoming law. The White House has already promised a veto, and Senate Democrats, who agreed to slash $4 billion from food stamps in June, are opposed to the $40 billion in cuts. However, an eventual compromise could result in some degree of cuts — any number of which could leave millions of Americans without access to benefits.