Federal policymakers will soon run into a hard deadline to increase the government’s legal debt limit. President Biden wants a simple debt‐limit increase with no strings attached, but House Republicans have proposed spending reforms called Limit, Save, Grow to include in a debt‐limit deal.
One GOP reform would strengthen work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also called food stamps. The proposal would affect a small fraction of people on the program and reduce costs only slightly. But restricting hand‐outs to encourage work makes sense because the economy has millions of job openings, as shown in the chart below.
In 2023, about 42 million people will receive food stamps at a cost of $127 billion. Many recipients are exempt from SNAP work requirements, including children, the elderly, and the disabled. About four‐fifths of SNAP households include a child, a senior, or a disabled person. The other one‐fifth consist of adults who generally need to be working, looking for work, or in training to receive ongoing benefits.
There are two sets of work requirements for SNAP recipients. General rules require individuals able to work, age 16–59, and not caring for a child under age 6, to register for work, to accept suitable work, or be in a training program. These rules have numerous exceptions. There are additional rules for able‐bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) age 18–49 to receive benefits for more than three months within any three‐year period.
The Republican proposal would tighten work requirements by raising the top age for the ABAWD group from 49 to 56. Looking at Table 3.2.a here, 3.5 million SNAP households do not include either children, the elderly, or the disabled, and about 2.5 million are in the ABAWD group. That appears to leave about 1 million households or fewer that may be affected by the GOP proposal. The data is for the October 2019 to February 2020 period.
SNAP’s ABAWD rules had been suspended during the pandemic but come into force again this year. And even then, the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Corinth notes that numerous states have federal waivers that void some of the program’s work requirements.
Tightening the SNAP work requirements would generate just a small part of the savings from the Republican plan. But it is important to begin reining in bloated entitlements, and adjusting eligibility to encourage work is a good place to start.