The debt ceiling deal, agreed to by President Joe Biden and Speaker Kevin McCarthy, will improve the federal safety net’s effectiveness in helping people rise out of poverty. It modestly enhances work requirements to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which is federal cash welfare, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. The changes to SNAP are especially noteworthy because SNAP’s support for work has not been strong in the past.
SNAP provides government aid to low-income, elderly, or disabled Americans to buy groceries. In 2022, an average of 41.2 million Americans participated in SNAP at a total cost of $119 billion.
There’s another change to SNAP you may have missed that might be more important than the program’s newly proposed work requirements. The debt ceiling deal amends Section 2 of the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 to include two sentences at the end of SNAP’s “purpose language,” which explains what the program is supposed to do. The added sentences are bolded below:
To alleviate such hunger and malnutrition, a supplemental nutrition assistance program is herein authorized which will permit low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet through normal channels of trade by increasing food purchasing power for all eligible households who apply for participation. That program includes as a purpose to assist low-income adults in obtaining employment and increasing their earnings. Such employment and earnings, along with program benefits, will permit low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet through normal channels of trade by increasing food purchasing power for all eligible households who apply for participation.
While the bolded language might seem minor, it’s not.
For decades, SNAP administrators have said that it’s not really their job to help recipients find work. That attitude has endured even as scholars have found that the combination of government support with earnings from work provides the best, most lasting path out of poverty.
While the implicit purpose of all our anti-poverty programs should be to help beneficiaries rise and stay out of poverty, SNAP administrators have limited their scope and attention to giving recipients financial resources without pushing them to become employed.
The result of administrators’ employment-agnostic approach has been low work rates for able-bodied SNAP recipients.
A recent report by my AEI colleagues, Angela Rachidi and Thomas O’Rourke, found that SNAP participants have consistently low levels of employment. “We found that three in 10 SNAP household heads age 50–64 and 43 percent of those age 18–49 without dependents were not working and were neither caretaking nor disabled,” write Rachidi and O’Rourke. “In other words, their inability to work remains unexplained.”
SNAP has likely contributed to low-income Americans’ retreat from work, even though work is their best path out of poverty. A greater work focus for SNAP would help recipients, who could be working but aren’t, find jobs and, in turn, move up and out of poverty.
The new language’s explicit mention of “obtaining employment and increasing their earnings” underscores the often-overlooked value of work to beneficiaries. The value of benefits plus earnings from work is more than benefits alone. Beneficiaries’ government aid would go further towards addressing their needs. That’s why benefits that are contingent on work, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), have been so successful at alleviating poverty for struggling Americans.
Work has other benefits, too. It increases social connections, fosters independence and self-reliance, and opens doors for training and skill development to earn higher incomes.
Changing the purpose language for SNAP is an important first step. It signals to state and local administrators that employment matters, and that if they were to give it more attention, federal administrators would not be able to penalize them for straying from their core purpose. The proposed change won’t by itself get all the non-workers on SNAP into work, but it sends an important message that will help. One thing I learned while running social services agencies in New York is that if the government lets recipients know that going to work, or training for work, is important, then recipients will follow that direction.
SNAP is an important, necessary benefit that helps millions of Americans. But it could be better. In addition to preventing hunger, it could help struggling Americans find work and escape poverty for good. Coupled with the new work requirements, the proposed changes to SNAP’s purpose language would be a step in that direction.