In the course of the recent resolution to the long-brewing debt ceiling crisis, it was congressional bickering that drew the most attention. Although it was largely drowned out by senatorial diatribes, the final June 2 debt ceiling measure included a substantive change: a modification to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), widely known as food stamps.
The new SNAP policy, reached through party negotiation and compromise, mandates an increase in the maximum age at which recipients will be subject to work requirements. Previously capped at age 49, the age range of the work mandate will now incorporate a new sliver of the population, for whom unemployment will preclude benefits: able-bodied adults without dependent children, ages 50-54. More positively, the bill also codified new exceptions to the same requirements, rendering three groups — young people from 18 to 24 who had grown out of foster care, all veterans and all unhoused people — newly exempt.
Leaving those particularly vulnerable populations out of the program’s work stipulations will certainly offer welcome protections. However, there are caveats to this kind of parceling out of benefits, among them the burden of determining eligibility, which will fall on clients and state administrators alike. But it is the work-requirement age giveaway to Republicans that is projected to have the most punishing social consequences, with ramifications for hundreds of thousands of low-income people.
An Uneasy Compromise
In the course of deficit reduction negotiations, Republicans naturally targeted their age-old nemesis, the hungry poor. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy advocated for upping the work requirement age, purportedly in the interest of spurring more adults to join the workforce, while, of course, slashing benefit rolls. His initial proposal applied to adults ages 50-56, two years older than the final arrangement.
The Republicans won their work requirements, and so were at least pleased by the chance to impose struggles on a whole new swath of the marginalized. But ultimately the bill’s features derive from a compromise reached between the Biden administration and Republicans. Democrats, for their part, were able to bargain for the exemption of those three vulnerable groups, which will ensure nutritional assistance, at least for some.
Yet the upshot of this bargaining is that the final compromise is satisfying to no one. Professedly committed to cutting spending (that is, unless it’s directed toward the military or corporate tax cuts), Republican leaders were displeased to learn from later estimates that the new SNAP arrangement will cost an additional $2.1 billion as a result of the exemptions. Meanwhile, some liberals may be chagrined to learn that thanks to the right, a considerable segment of the population is likely to lose their benefits entirely.
Undue Burdens on the Aging
Before assessing the impacts of these changes — both the increased age limit and the new exemption categories — there is some context to consider. During the officially declared pandemic (now, on paper, concluded), a portion of the federal funds sent to states for COVID relief were earmarked to expand SNAP benefits. These “emergency allotments,” or EAs, according to an analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), “kept 4.2 million people above the poverty line in the last quarter of 2021, reducing poverty by 10 percent ― and child poverty by 14 percent ― in states with EAs at the time. The estimated reduction in poverty rates due to EAs was highest for Black and Latino people.”
But once the federal emergency declaration expired, those enhanced allotments quickly dropped to pre-pandemic levels. Some states had already begun to wind them down. As NPR reported, these reductions have diminished benefits for as many as 16 million people, losing an average of $82 a month; some will lose as much as $250 per month. Emergency allotments had already been rescinded before the new SNAP modifications were passed on June 2.
Now, on top of the fact that benefits have already been weakened, this increase in the work-requirement age from 49 to 54 is expected to impact, per the CBPP, as many as 750,000 older adults. Three-quarters of a million people now must work or lose food benefits entirely.
In public statements, Speaker McCarthy framed the requirements as a boon to the citizenry, a first rung on the ladder to success. NewsNation quoted McCarthy as stating, with truly baffling grammar, “[Work requirements] lifted people up more in to have jobs than ever before it helped the supply chain.” He added, “And the ‘controversy’ here is, do we believe in the work ethic or not?”
Professor Julia Henly is the deputy dean for research and faculty development at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice at the University of Chicago. In a conversation with Truthout, she drew on current research to convey a number of complicating factors around these policies, adding some nuances that have gone unaddressed by cable TV commentators.
“We have good evidence that work requirements historically don’t align with the motivations for clients using public benefits,” said Henly. “There’s this assumption that people don’t want to work. That using the benefit is reducing their work effort, and we have to motivate them to work and not become dependent on welfare. I’d say that’s mostly a political argument — there’s not a lot of research to really back that up.”
The actual results of forcing aging low-income people to return to work (a minimum of 20 hours a week in either employment or job training) belie the Republican claims of work-requirement efficacy. The right’s professed interest is in driving people off benefits and towards self-sufficiency. But research indicates that their policies will produce much of the former, with highly dubious impact on the latter. “While work requirements do probably induce some people to look harder for work and to meet the requirements,” Henly noted, “I think there’s pretty good evidence that the establishment of work requirements also results in people falling off of the program.”
SNAP, of course, already had work requirements across the board: Able-bodied people aged 18 to 49 with no children could only receive benefits for three months in a three-year period, unless they could demonstrate they were employed or in job training for at least 20 hours a week. The age 50-54 contingent that is now also in question is low-income, aging and potentially out of the workforce for good reason — they may be caring for children or other dependents, or may be disabled themselves. But even a good cause for exemption is not often recognized by the state.
Though left unconsidered by Congress, this is a critical issue with work requirements. The state might consider many of those 750,000 people able-bodied, able to work. But from the client perspective, “able-bodied” can easily mean “unable to prove to the state that you’re disabled.” Earning that designation can be intensely difficult — or, if your disability isn’t officially recognized, entirely impossible.
The Exemptions of Exemptions
It is that disjoint between the bureaucracy’s on-paper reality and the reality for people in need that complicates the putative benefit of the Democrats’ new exemption categories.
First, though, it should be noted that despite their seemingly wide breadth — comprising, once again, veterans, the unhoused and young people raised in foster care — NPR cited information from the Congressional Budget Office that estimated the new exemptions would only grow the overall total of the SNAP rolls by 78,000 people “in an average month” — just 0.2 percent of the 42 million SNAP recipients. That’s a comparatively limited increase for the amount of administrative oversight that the new exemptions will demand. Still, for these people, easier access to SNAP will certainly be welcome.
More to the point, the same complication with disability applies to other exemptions. As Henly put it, “The other thing to note is not that you fall into these categories — it’s that you’re properly identified as falling into these categories. There are always administrative hoops to jump through in getting on any program and proving you’re eligible for exemption.”
It’s not hard to imagine that an unhoused person, though eligible, might for many reasons have trouble assembling the documentation and attending the screenings that would prove them so. “There are individuals who have barriers to work — and those barriers to work don’t always align with the exemption categories. That’s a problem.”
This type of effect is also evident in the U.S.’s other, often clumsy, forms of benefit administration. For disability, for unemployment aid, for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), for anything that remains of the tattered welfare state after decades of Reaganite gutting and neoliberal Clinton-era “welfare reform,” the government has introduced all manner of preconditions. “Means-tested” entitlements demand proof of income levels. Child care grants and subsidies require ponderous enrollment processes. Disability benefit access can, again, be extremely difficult to attain; the grim irony is that this is especially so for those with disabilities.
The complications of these various requirements are not limited to the recipient side. It’s also much harder for states to administer programs that have complex preconditions. Conversely, universal programs have the advantage of simplicity, doing away with all the maddening, abstruse bureaucracy and thereby cutting overhead costs. But of course, U.S. benefits are currently a world away from universal.
For SNAP in particular, administrative procedures vary greatly by state, some with accessible (or inaccessible) online portals, others requiring welfare office visits and reams of paperwork. Henly pointed out that a lot of the inefficiencies and burdens on applicants are attributable to a state’s aging IT infrastructure and lack of interconnectivity with other public systems.
Those pre-existing architectures must be expanded significantly to accommodate new strictures of work requirements and exemptions, like the kind just passed. “There are several studies that suggest the administrative costs increase as we increase eligibility requirements,” said Henly. “When you have these heavily administratively dependent programs at the local and state level, states have to develop infrastructure to process that. That’s a cost.”
Additionally, eligibility must not only be determined in the first instance. It has to be recertified at regular intervals, adding more administrative complication. “Every time you require someone to renew their eligibility,” Henly remarked, “some people are going to fall off the program.”
The accumulating layers of bureaucracy intensify existing obstacles and generate new ones: one’s language fluency, free time, ability to travel to an office appointment, familiarity with phones or mail, ease of internet access or technology skills — all can be decisive factors. People are commonly uncertain as to whether they’re eligible, or unaware such benefits exist at all.
To the right, this is a feature, not a bug. Decades of “welfare reform” have structurally inhibited vast numbers of poor U.S. residents from attaining benefits, or otherwise eliminated them outright. And yet one can still hear the vindictive refrain that “cheaters” must be weeded out. Henly commented, “What often dominates [debate] is, ‘Are some people getting this that might not deserve it?’ I think that’s unfortunate. If we had a better frame, like, ‘How can we meet the needs of people who are food insecure?’ — that would be a more strength-based approach.”
Not only are welfare cheats “a small percentage of cases,” said Henly, catching them also comes with major costs. “[T]o take it not from a humanitarian perspective, but from a simple self-interested cost perspective, it’s a lot of resources trying to make sure we find those few.”
A central contradiction in the Republicans’ argument is the fact that the majority of SNAP recipients are already in the labor market — debunking the right-wing claim that benefits disincentivize work. The right got their wish, and yet mystifyingly, social maladies persist. The truth is that the already-employed are still seeking SNAP benefits because their wages simply aren’t high enough. Tellingly, the Government Accountability Office found that enormous percentages of employees at Walmart and McDonald’s, among other major corporations, are on Medicaid and SNAP.
The true abusers of the system are not the scattered individuals who are “unfairly” issued a couple hundred dollars a month that can only be spent on food. (It’s not often understood that SNAP funds cannot even be used to purchase hot food — not at restaurants, not even from a grocery store buffet. Some states impose even more stringent limits.) The “cheats” living in luxury off of these penurious sums are nothing but the phantom fears of the fevered reactionary imagination.
Meanwhile, corporations are dredging funds from the state program to subsidize the unlivable pittances they call a wage. The real “welfare queens” are royalty indeed: billionaires like the Waltons, along with all the private enterprises that tout bootstrap ideology while gorging on government subsidies. And, though the Biden administration should be commended for winning new exemptions, the ultimate effect of these bipartisan SNAP cuts — further decimating assistance to the aging and impoverished — is a contemptible outcome indeed.
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