Skip to main content
Blog Post

Work Improves Mental Health

June 8, 2023

Since President Joe Biden signed the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023 (FRA) into law, countless news stories have detailed how thousands of low-income Americans will be negatively impacted by new work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). A narrow work requirement has long existed in SNAP, but changes in the FRA raised the age of SNAP’s work requirement from 49 to 54. Although some have branded the added work incentive among SNAP recipients as a penalty for the poor, the existing evidence offers a different narrative. People who work, especially SNAP participants, overwhelmingly report better mental health outcomes than those who do not.

Figure 1 compares the mental health outcomes of all American adults based on their SNAP and employment statuses, displaying the share of each group that reported feeling hopeless or worthless in the past month using data from the National Health Interview Survey. As made clear by the figure, SNAP adults overall reported worse mental health outcomes than non-recipients, both low- and high-income alike. However, among working adults the gap by SNAP status was much smaller, illustrating the link between employment and better mental health.

Over one-third of non-working SNAP recipients (36 percent) reported feeling hopeless or worthless, while only 22 percent of working SNAP recipients reported similar feelings. Even when controlling for physical health status—itself a correlate of both mental health and ability to work—we found the same results: working related to better mental health outcomes. And when we restricted our view to those directly affected by the recent change to SNAP’s work requirements, the results were even more pronounced: 44 percent of non-working 50–54 year-old SNAP recipients report feeling hopeless or worthless, while the number shrinks to 21 percent for those working.

In a recent report, we documented that SNAP recipients were much more likely to have negative mental health outcomes than other low-income Americans not receiving SNAP. However, Figure 1 shows that much of the mental health gap between these two groups evaporates when considering the effect of work. Although there is an 11–percentage point gap between non-working SNAP recipients and low-income non-recipients, that gap shrinks to only 2 percentage points among those who work.

To be sure, mental health challenges could be the reason for low work rates from the start, and these data do not necessarily show that moving into work would improvethe mental health status of nonworking SNAP recipients. But when work so strongly correlates to better mental health status—even for those at the bottom of the income distribution—policy efforts that support employment should be a priority.

New research suggests that there is a causal path between employment and better mental health. A recent study from researchers at the University of Chicago and Harvard found that gainful employment improved mental health for a cohort of refugees. In their randomized control trial, the researchers compared a group of refugees whom they gave an unconditional cash transfer to those whom they offered paid work. Their results were unequivocal:

[E]mployment confers significant psychosocial benefits beyond the impact of cash alone. [Receiving unconditional cash] does not improve psychosocial wellbeing, despite the provision of cash at a weekly amount that is more than twice the amount held by recipients in savings at baseline.

Although these results come from a field experiment among refugees in Bangladesh, the study does show that even those with desperate material needs benefit more from working than receiving a cash transfer. Certain studies in the US context have found similar results. For example, a group of researchers found that the expansion of the child tax credit through the American Rescue Plan—which provided American households with either $3,000 or $3,600 per child per year, unconditional on work—had no effect on measures of subjective wellbeing. Even though these transfers pushed millions of families over the poverty line, the extra cash infusion did little to remedy the more fundamental sources of low-income families’ struggles.

Much of the hand wringing over SNAP’s expanded work requirements is misplaced. Although these additional requirements may cause some additional administrative burden, work requirements are designed with the best interests of low-income Americans in mind. Working leads to better mental health outcomes, and among SNAP recipients, those who work are substantially less likely to face serious mental health issues. Insofar as policymakers are concerned about improving the mental health of the disadvantaged, encouraging work appears to be a particularly effective remedy.