The fuzzy math of adding work requirements for food stamps

A proposed law that would require people on food stamps to get a job or receive work training is unlikely to deliver the cost savings that its proponents hope, a government analysis shows.

Most of the savings from the plan -- which would bump 1.2 million people from the food-stamp rolls -- would be consumed by new administrative costs for the program, according to a report from the Congressional Budget Office. The analysis, released late Wednesday, examines several proposals in the farm bill, which was introduced in the House last month. 

The work requirement would lower spending on food stamps by about $9.2 billion over the next 10 years, but the costs from the provision would add $7.7 billion in new costs over the same period. That leaves a net savings of $1.5 billion over a decade, the report found.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Michael Conaway, R.-Texas, would require food-stamp recipients between the ages of 18 to 59 who aren't disabled or caring for children younger than 6 to either work or participate in a government-sponsored training program for at least 20 hours a week. By 2026, that would jump to 25 hours a week. 

Some would receive exemptions, such as pregnant women and people who taking care of an incapacitated person. Within a month of receiving food stamps, recipients would have to prove they are working or in job training. 

The measure, known formally as the Agriculture and Nutrition Act of 2018, has made its way through committee and now awaits a floor vote in the House.

Food stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides grocery money to 41 million Americans. Following the recession, the program swelled to almost 48 million recipients, but enrollment has declined since 2013 as the economy strengthened. Its annual costs run to about $70 billion, or roughly 2 percent of the federal budget.

"Springboard" to success?

Proponents of the work requirement argue that the goal isn't to save money, but rather to encourage poor Americans to find a job or sign up for job training. Conway, who is chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, described the requirement as "a springboard out of poverty to a good-paying job." 

Most of the cost of the proposed SNAP changes would stem from funding job-training programs for food stamp recipients, the CBO said. 

"They key question is whether this change will improve working families' employment and earnings, or just leave working age adults and in many cases their children with less food assistance," said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning think tank, in an email.

She added, "There is no research evidence that people will be better off under these types of changes."

The plan to impose work requirements to get food stamps may result in additional costs that the CBO isn't calculating, Dean added. For instance, people who lose SNAP benefits may turn to food pantries or local charities, burdening local communities. The report also focuses only on federal spending, and states may incur new costs because of the job training mandate. 

Meanwhile, families may feel another type of cost: hunger and health issues, Dean said.

"Given the research evidence that participating in SNAP is linked with lower health costs and higher educational achievement, a SNAP cut would likely have ripple effects that are difficult to measure in the aggregate, but very real for people struggling to put food on the table," she said. 

Some analysts argue that the requirement isn't necessary since most food-stamp recipients who can work are already working. Many are employed in low-wage jobs without guaranteed hours or apply for the food benefit when they are between jobs. About two-thirds of food-stamp recipients aren't expected to work because they are disabled, children or senior citizens, according to the CBPP. 

About 17 percent of current food-stamp recipients are between 18 to 59, aren't disabled and aren't caring for young children, the CBO said. The proposed work requirements would cut off about 7 percent of that group from food stamps. But most would likely continue to receive food assistance because they're working enough hours or would receive a waiver, such as if they lived in a high-unemployment area, the analysis said. 

Dean said, "The primary effect of the changes will be to increase hunger and hardship for people who are unable to comply with the new requirements or get caught in the bureaucracy of proving they are already working or are in between jobs."