Who gets food assistance? You may be surprised to learn who receives food benefits

Work-requirement proponents say the problem is unemployment, but nearly 4 out of 5 of households in the SNAP program have at least one person working.

The bipartisan bill to raise the debt ceiling that Congress passed last week includes stricter requirements for food assistance recipients, as well as new exemptions which could allow others access.

The new rules that President Joe Biden will sign soon raise the age at which participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) must provide proof of employment from 18-49 years old to 18-54. This means that many Americans in their 50s who do not have a disability, or care for dependents or children could be ineligible.

The bill exempts homeless people, veterans and youths aging from foster care, as well as those who are no longer in foster care, from the SNAP requirements. This is a concession that the White House, and Democrats, have hailed. Researchers at the nonpartisan federal agency project that would expand SNAP by around 78,000 individuals or 0.2% in a typical month.

Many conservative leaders, think tanks and groups argue that tighter requirements will help to bring more Americans back into the workforce. This is especially true in an historically tight labor market where continues to add jobs at an astonishing rate. NBC News’ analysis of Census Bureau data and other sources paints a different picture.

Most families that use SNAP, where the average monthly benefit is about $230 for each person, are already employed, and poverty, not unemployment, is their biggest challenge.

Federal data indicates that more than 42,5 million Americans receive federal food assistance, and four out of five households participating in the program include at least one member who works.

Some families may have several adults in them, with some of them working and others not. Ed Bolen, an expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based left-leaning think tank, said that the adults who are not working in these families often do other types of work, such as child or eldercare. Angela Rachidi, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., the American Enterprise Institute, says that data about households with multiple able-bodied adult without children are lacking. However, she believes the percentage would be low.

Kathryn Anne Edwards said that the idea of an underclass without work is a myth. She noted that families who are in poverty do not stay there for long. Edwards said that gig workers and those with jobs with unpredictable schedules are common SNAP recipients. They need the program in order to help themselves and their families get through a tough patch.

Edwards explained that it is possible that the hours you work may increase or decrease, that overtime you earn, or that overtime you lose.

Bolen, the director of SNAP Strategies for CBPP, points out that poverty shares and SNAP enrollment are closely linked, rising and falling together. The unemployment rate is often different from SNAP participation.

Conservative economists and Republican legislators say the data are incomplete. Rachidi is a senior fellow with the AEI. He cited a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that showed the average duration of SNAP eligibility was 15 months for all households participating. This includes elderly and disabled individuals who may receive certification for longer periods.

Rachidi added that according to her research, approximately 1 in 4 SNAP beneficiaries are adults with a high level of education who “seemingly” have no other reasons not to work.

Even length of stay can be misleading. In 2022, for instance, 16.4% percent of American households will be participating in SNAP. However, the benefits received by many households in January are not the same as those in June.

The idea can be tested using data from a Census Bureau panel that covers the years 2009-2013. Even with the most strict beneficiary conditions, by the end 2012, the number of unemployed people receiving SNAP, including those who had working spouses, or elder and child care responsibilities, shrank by about 25%. This indicates a dynamic in SNAP eligibility.

Biden administration repeatedly noted during debt ceiling talks that work requirements for safety net programs have been a part of the SNAP for decades. They enjoyed bipartisan support, including then-Senator Biden, when President Bill Clinton passed welfare reforms in 1996. Democrats, however, have become more critical of the policies over the past few years. This is despite the fact that Republicans at both the federal and state levels are still trying to tighten the rules.

Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who spoke late last month , said that the rules “let people back to work“, referred to the House Republicans’ party-line debt limit bill passed in April .

Bolen of the CBPP said, “people will want to work, because they are going to earn a lot more through paid employment than SNAP.”

He compared the program with a “bridge between jobs” that many people depend on intermittently . This is especially true for those who work in “volatile” industries where turnover is high.

He said that it is not unusual for someone to work at a restaurant, then be laid off three months later. But then find another job at another restaurant three or four months later.

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