Food Stamp Work Requirements and the Implications of Devolution

By Jane Collins | February 15, 2017

On January 23, 2017, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker announced a new pilot program to require the state’s food stamp recipients who have children to work 80 hours per month for those benefits.  The change would require approval from the Trump Administration, since federal policy currently prohibits states from imposing additional requirements on food stamp recipients.  Unlike the Obama administration, which utilized those policies to protect and expand access to this and other programs, President Trump has signaled his intention to weaken those guidelines or eliminate them completely.

Walker’s proposal, therefore, provides important insight into the likely implications of that approach for poor workers and their families.

Officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, food stamps were created by the War on Poverty in 1964 to ease the long-term effects of poverty on children and to invest in their health and well-being. The program reaches millions of poor children and families and has been remarkably successful in reducing severe hunger in the U.S.  After Unemployment Insurance, SNAP is the most responsive federal program providing assistance during economic downturns.  The use of SNAP benefits tracks the poverty rate quite closely.  During the most recent recession, demand for food stamps and spending on them rose sharply but, as unemployment eased, both fell (and continue to fall) across the country.  The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that SNAP kept over 15 million people out of poverty and deep poverty in 2012.  Part of the program’s success is due to its consistent national design structure that targets those in greatest need, implements safeguards that insure extremely low rates of error and fraud, and responds quickly to changes in the economy.

Walker’s proposal is premised on the widespread public misconception that most food stamp recipients are avoiding work.

In fact, 64% of SNAP recipients are children, elderly, or disabled people who are typically not expected to be working.  Another 15% are already required to work because they are able-bodied adults without dependents.  The Wisconsin Governor’s changes would target the 21% of participants who are caring for children and thus, under current policies, exempted from the work requirement.  Even within this group, however, 62% of SNAP households with children have at least one member working and, in 87% of those households, a family member has been employed at some point during the year.  Many of these family members work at extremely low wage jobs where their annual earnings leave them at or below 130% of the federal poverty line (the income eligibility requirement).

To date, the Walker administration has provided few details about how the new rules will work.  Policymakers and legislators have raised many questions.  For example, if a SNAP participant does not find work, will the state provide a job, or will that family lose their benefits? Given that 66% of families receiving SNAP benefits in Wisconsin are single parent, primarily female-headed, households, how will child care be provided? Will single parents be required to take jobs that require long travel times or overnight shifts?  If families lose benefits, how will the state insure that it penalizes only the parent and not the child? If a mother cooks a meal with food purchased using food stamps, is she not allowed to eat it?

In addition to targeting female-headed households, these cuts will likely exacerbate Wisconsin’s already near-worst in the nation levels of racial inequality.

This is not, as is widely believed, because non-whites are particularly dependent upon government assistance.  In fact, food stamp usage closely tracks poverty rates among all racial groups. Yet, since African Americans are heavily concentrated in Milwaukee and other cities with high levels of unemployment, they are overrepresented in SNAP when compared to the population as a whole.  Indeed, this is further evidence of the effectiveness of the program in targeting labor-market inefficiencies.  It also indicates that restricting access will increase the stark inequalities in poverty levels between Milwaukee and the rest of Wisconsin.

Walker has stated that his plans are designed to “increase the supply of available workers” at a time when, he claims, “the state of Wisconsin has a worker shortage.” One way to increase labor force participation is to increase incentives to work by raising wages.  The Walker administration has decidedly rejected that path.  Since 2011, it has passed a series of bills that have deeply wounded the state’s labor unions and it has refused to consider raising the statewide minimum wage.  Taking food stamps from families with children represents a punitive alternative, one that compromises the health of those families in the present and may damage the long-term health and development (and labor market prospects) of their children.

Walker calls these changes “a giant step forward” and likens them to the welfare reform policies that were implemented by former Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson and became a model for the national changes implemented by President Bill Clinton in the 1990s.  Last fall, a federal district court halted a Wisconsin law passed in 2015 that required drug testing of SNAP beneficiaries.  Rather than appeal the decision, Walker sent a letter to then President-elect Trump asking for a waiver.  He has expressed confidence that the new work requirements will be approved and also proposed similar requirements for recipients of federal housing vouchers.

Given the Trump administration’s interest in devolving control to state governments, Walker’s proposals provide a vivid illustration of the actions states may take when given leeway to impose new restrictions and make new rules for federal programs.

Wisconsin is not the only state seeking to change the rules for federally administered safety net programs—in 2016, it was one of twelve states that signed a letter to the US Department of Agriculture requesting permission to drug test SNAP recipients. Recent Congressional proposals to transform Medicaid funding into block grants raise the specter of similar restrictions health care safety net protections from poor families.  The Walker administration has already signaled its intent to change Medicaid eligibility requirements, either through a new federal block grant program, or failing that, through requesting exemptions to federal Medicaid rules.

While in some policy domains state discretion may lead to innovation, we also know that the success of programs like Medicaid and SNAP historically has been linked to their nationally standardized, coherent and transparent best practices, uniformly administered and monitored across the states.

New proposals like this one, by imposing undue hardship on the most vulnerable of the poor, threaten to leave citizens of some US states unprotected from personal misfortune and economic downturn, unraveling our already strained national safety net.  The result is deepening inequality that is manifested not just as economic inequality, but also as gender and racial inequalities.