Research & Commentary: SNAP Update and the Return of Work Requirements

Published October 10, 2014

For the first time in several years, the number of enrollees in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the food assistance program also known as food stamps, has begun to shrink in many states and the country as a whole. Despite these recent decreases, SNAP enrollment remains near historic highs. According to the Food and Nutrition Service, in fiscal year 2013, SNAP provided $76 billion in benefits to approximately 46 million people, a significant increase from 2000, when 17 million people received benefits at a cost of less than $18 billion. 

One of the biggest problems with SNAP and the reason it grew so quickly during the recent recession is the lack of any requirement that recipients actively seek employment. Before 2009, recipients were required to work or participate in a work training program in order to receive long-term benefits, but many states waived those requirements between 2009 and 2010. As a result, 44 percent of SNAP recipients are neither employed nor actively searching for work. Ordinarily, low-income, able-bodied adults without children are limited to receiving food stamps for only three months in a three-year period, unless they fulfill work requirements, which entail employment or participation in a training or “workfare” program for at least 20 hours a week. 

Work requirements are an important component of any welfare program; they ensure recipients do not become dependent on government aid and instead move back into the workforce. In The Heartland Institute’s Welfare Reform after Ten Years: A State-by-State Analysis, Gary MacDougal, Kate Campaigne, and Dane Wendell argue encouraging work affects more than just household income: “Work improves family well-being economically, by providing a steady source of income and the opportunity to acquire assets, as well as socially and culturally. Work builds self-esteem, imposes order on adults’ lifestyles, creates role models for children, and fosters relationships of respect between adults and between adults and children. Many problems in disadvantaged families often trace back to not having a member of the household in the workforce.” 

In the past few years, states have begun to reinstate food stamp work requirements. Some did so of their own accord; others became ineligible for the waivers. Although some people will lose their food stamp benefits as these waivers end, the growth of SNAP is unsustainable. The real focus of the program must be temporary aid that encourages work and independence. 

One promising plan recently announced by the Department of Agriculture would fund pilot programs designed to make work a higher priority. According to Governing magazine, the program is looking for “proposals for three-year pilot projects that aim to reduce the use of public assistance while increasing earned income and unsubsidized employment.” The pilot programs would be required to target able-bodied adults without dependents and follow three basic criteria: the pilots have to be implemented in both urban and rural areas; target individuals with limited skills or work experience; and appear easy to replicate in other states and political jurisdictions. Ultimately, federal and state reforms are both needed and should focus on making sure recipients are both truly eligible and actively seeking work. 

The following articles examine the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, developments since the end of the recession, and how states are now managing their programs.

Welfare Reform after Ten Years: A State-by-State Analysis
Gary MacDougal, Kate Campaigne, and Dane Wendell rank and grade states by the success of their anti-poverty efforts and the reform policies they adopted. They measured five variables reflecting states’ success in fighting poverty and seven welfare reform policies states can adopt. Maryland, Idaho, Illinois, Florida, Virginia, and California rank highest, and Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Kansas, Vermont, and Missouri rank at the bottom of the survey. 

Feds to Try Tying Work Requirements to Food Stamps
J. B. Wogan reports on the U.S. Department of Agriculture looking to fund state pilot projects that combine food assistance and job training to find the best ways to get people out of poverty. 

More States Enforce Food Stamp Work Requirements
With the U.S. economy emerging from the recession, food stamp work requirements that were suspended during the downturn will be reinstated in many states, Jake Grovum notes, writing for Stateline after speaking with experts on the SNAP debate. 

Research & Commentary: Reforming SNAP–commentary-reforming-snap
In this Heartland Institute Research & Commentary, Matthew Glans examines the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and recent proposals to reform food stamp programs. 

Food Stamp Independency
Heartland Institute Senior Fellow Ross Kaminsky examines the first-ever program-wide reduction in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Kaminsky criticizes the prominent portrayal of the reduction as a “cut” and voices his support for the effort, citing the rapid growth of the program and loosened eligibility standards. 

Seven Reasons to Reform Food Stamps
Writing for The Foundry, T. Elliot Gaiser outlines seven reasons why the food stamp program is in great need of reform. 

The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off: A Response to Critics
Writing at CATO @ Liberty, Michael Tanner reports on a new study, The Work vs. Welfare Trade-Off, 2013: An Analysis of the Total Level of Welfare Benefits by State. The study shows a family collecting welfare benefits from seven common programs – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, food stamps, Medicaid, WIC, public housing assistance, utilities assistance, and free commodities – could receive more than what a minimum wage job would pay in 35 states. 

Research & Commentary: Food Stamp Reform–commentary-food-stamp-reform
This Heartland Institute Research & Commentary examines the SNAP program and different possibilities for reform. Matthew Glans argues the program needs reforms ensuring recipients are both truly eligible and actively seeking work: “Both Congress and state legislators should take a closer look at such reforms before SNAP expenditures spiral out of control.” 

Top 10 Reasons Food Stamps Need to be Reformed
Andrew Montgomery of FreedomWorks examines the serious flaws in the current food stamp programs: “In recent years, food stamps have grown into a major financial obligation. Enrollment in SNAP has increased dramatically, rising from 26 million in 2007 (one in twelve Americans) to nearly 47 million in 2012 (one in seven Americans). Costs have increased dramatically as well, rising from $35 billion in 2007 to $80 billion in 2012, making it the second most expensive means-tested federal welfare program, behind only Medicaid.”

Food Stamps Don’t Stimulate Economic Growth
Rachel Sheffield and T. Elliot Gaiser of The Heritage Foundation refute the commonly cited claim that food stamps stimulate economic growth: A “growing welfare system is not only bad news for the economy, but bad news for Americans in need. Instead of continuing on this same failed course, Congress should work to ensure that welfare programs like food stamps promote self-sufficiency through work.”

GOP Food Stamp Bill Will Increase Government Spending
Writing for the Reason Foundation, Ira Stoll argues Republican reforms of the food stamp program would increase government spending, in contrast to critics’ claims.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Web site of FIRE Policy News at, The Heartland Institute’s Web site at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database, at

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