In April, President Donald Trump signed an executive order mandating all agencies that implement anti-poverty programs to require that recipients be employed or looking for work.
The theory is that work requirements incentivize those who would otherwise not make an effort to join the labor force. The problem? Most adults receiving assistance are already workers, but they’re stuck in unstable, low-wage jobs.
One of the biggest programs targeted by the administration is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has pushed the narrative that people who receive SNAP are taking advantage of the program, becoming dependent on assistance long term, even though two-thirds of SNAP recipients are children, seniors and people with disabilities. And according to recent data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), almost three-quarters of adult recipients have worked for a wage either in the year before or the year after receiving assistance—and most are only on the program for short periods. The study suggests that instead of choosing to live off an average $376 per month (for a family of three) in SNAP benefits that can only buy food, recipients use the program to help them afford groceries when they’re working for a low wage or are between jobs.
“Women are disproportionately poor and disproportionately caregivers,” explains Elizabeth Wolkomir, policy analyst at CBPP, adding that nearly two-thirds of adults on SNAP are women. This is no surprise since the job sectors disproportionately made up of SNAP recipients are also those traditionally dominated by women, like education, health care, retail and food service. These include corporations like Walmart and McDonald’s that essentially are using SNAP to subsidize their low pay.
Additionally, these jobs, characterized by volatile and inconsistent scheduling and limited leave options, are often unstable. Their part-time nature and ever-changing schedules make it difficult to meet the government’s new threshold of work required to qualify for continued assistance. Plus, “one clerical slipup, either on your end or the part of the state… could mean that you lose food assistance,” Wolkomir says. And those SNAP recipients who don’t meet the requirement are typically looking for work, too ill to work, or do, in fact, work—but as unpaid caregivers.
While current SNAP work requirements mostly affect adults without children, House Republicans recently proposed targeting households with children older than 6—as if caregiving stops at kindergarten.
Besides recommending stricter SNAP work requirements, the administration has already allowed Medicaid work requirements to go through in a handful of states, even though past administrations have rejected such changes, explaining that pushing people off Medicaid is inconsistent with the program’s mission to provide health care to low-income people. The administration is even proposing widespread work requirements for housing assistance programs.
Regarding SNAP, a work requirement for a woman in poverty, Wolkomir says, “is not giving her higher wages. It’s not creating an opportunity for a better job, but it’s simply making her and her [family] … at greater risk for hunger.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: After this article went to print, the House passed its version of the farm bill. The legislation has yet to pass in the Senate, where another version without work requirements has been introduced.