A bodega displays a sign that says "EBT accepted here."
A bodega displays a sign that says it accepts EBT, Electronic Benefit Transfer, in Queens, New York. EBT is an electronic system that allows a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participant to pay for food using SNAP benefits. (Lindsey Nicholson/UCG/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Reading Time: 4 minutes

The GOP-controlled House is refusing to raise the debt ceiling unless Democrats agree to a long list of controversial policies. They want President Joe Biden to cancel his student loan forgiveness plan, for example, and repeal extra funding for IRS audits. One item in the House bill that Republicans passed last week stands out not only for its political divisiveness, but because it could increase hunger and poverty.

The Limit, Save, Grow Act would make it harder for millions of low-income Americans to buy food. 

The bill adds stricter work requirements to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, more commonly known as SNAP or food stamps. Under current law, people younger than 50 who can work and don’t have young children must volunteer, work or receive job training for 80 hours a month to receive regular assistance. (Those rules were suspended during the pandemic, but will go back into effect in July.) The House bill raises the age of recipients required to work to 55 and makes it harder for states to waive work rules in areas with high unemployment. 

Republicans and some Clinton-era Democrats have long claimed that giving money to low-income Americans without requiring them to work discourages them from getting jobs, creating a burden to U.S. taxpayers.

But a growing body of research shows that adding more work rules to SNAP will likely have zero impact on employment and will instead kick out a large number of poor people from the program.

A major study published in February from researchers at the University of Rochester, the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard and the University of Maryland found that SNAP work requirements did not boost employment or income in Virginia. On the contrary, they led more than half of adults in the program to lose food aid. 

“The fact that [work requirements] don’t achieve the rationale behind the policy — to increase work — is pretty important,” said Adam Leive, an assistant professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, who was one of the authors of the study. “And we found that it’s the people who are most economically vulnerable who end up leaving SNAP.”

Roughly half a dozen studies published since 2018 have focused on work rules for SNAP recipients. Three studies found that adding work rules has no real impact on a person’s earnings or employment. One concluded that it increased the number of hours people worked. Only one found that the policy increased employment  — anywhere from 1.5% to 1.8%. The majority, however, found clear evidence that work requirements led many people to lose food assistance.

But even these studies had limits. They relied on government surveys to estimate SNAP participation, which tend to grossly undercount the number of people getting food aid. 

The most recent study identified SNAP recipients and tracked their earnings with program data provided by the state of Virginia, which suspended work requirements for four years during the Great Recession, starting in 2009. Researchers tracked Virginians without children who were receiving food stamps before and after the state reinstated work rules in October 2013.

What they discovered was striking: The change did not lead people to work more or earn more 18 months later. Instead, it did “dramatically reduce” the number of people getting food aid. More than half of adults subject to the work rules in 2013 lost benefits because of the policy. They also found that 56% of homeless people in the program lost their benefits within 18 months, compared to 36% of all recipients.

Hunger and food insecurity have persisted in the United States for decades. Roughly one in 10 households experiences food insecurity, according to government surveys, and the rate is even higher for families with children.

Nearly 43 million poor Americans get federal money through SNAP to help buy groceries. It’s unclear exactly how many people would need to show proof of work if Congress raises the age threshold to 55 (the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the program, only publishes data that breaks down participation by broad age groups). 

The Limit, Save and Grow Act also adds stricter work requirements to other social welfare programs: Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Biden and Senate Democrats have vowed to block the House bill, so it’s unlikely that these work rules will go into effect at the national level. But many GOP-led states, such as Kansas, are pushing for similar restrictions locally. 

The conservative Foundation for Government Accountability is one of the groups lobbying for these changes in state legislatures and in Congress. In a recent op-ed, CEO Tarren Bragdon warned of the potentially “disastrous” harm to the U.S. economy in letting so many people “get paid to sit on the couch.”

It’s hard to find evidence to back up his dire warnings.

Researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied new work rules in red states and concluded that changes to SNAP impact poverty rates far more than unemployment. The percentage of Americans receiving food stamps has more than doubled since 1971, even though unemployment is lower.

“At the very least, SNAP participation does not appear to impact employment nor serve as a disincentive to work,” Jonathan Coppess and Mark White wrote in their policy paper.

Leive, of Berkeley, wants to find out what other barriers — aside from work requirements — stop vulnerable Americans from getting food aid.  

“The extremely large reduction in SNAP participation is not a good thing if we care about economically vulnerable people in our society,” he said.

Help support this work

Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you. 

Alexia Fernández Campbell is a senior investigative reporter at the Center for Public Integrity in Washington,...