NC Budget and Tax Center

SNAP time limit is problematic because there are too few jobs, not too few people willing to work

Most non-disabled, childless adults on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) who can work do so, according to new analysis published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — an important finding given that the harsh three-month time limit for SNAP returns for this population in North Carolina over the course of 2016. More than 100,000 of the state’s poorest adults could be cut off SNAP if they can’t find a job, job-training program, or volunteer opportunity for 20 hours per week.

Due to federal law, the time limit returned for 23 of North Carolina’s 100 counties last month. The remaining 77 counties qualified for a year-long waiver due to a very weak labor market but the Governor and legislature permanently banned state waivers after July 2016. Now, the three-month time limit is returning at least six months sooner for those 77 counties, potentially harming very poor adults who are doing their best to get by in a weak economy.

Lawmakers supporting the ban and voluntary re-implementation of the time limit claimed that the policy change would encourage people to find a job or an education opportunity. Yet, the Center’s new report shows that claim is rooted in misunderstanding. Most childless adults on SNAP are in fact strongly attached to the labor force and they stay on assistance for shorter periods of time compared to the average participant.

Among the key findings in the Center’s report include:

  • At least one-quarter, and as many as one-half, of SNAP households with childless adults work. This reflects two important points. First, during times of unemployment workers turn to SNAP as a temporary measure until they can regain their economic footing. That helps explain why work participation is lower. Second, the fact that up to one-half of these households works but still qualifies for SNAP reflects the boom in low-wage and part-time work that is making it impossible for people to afford the basics.
  • Approximately three-quarters of SNAP households with a childless adult work in the year before or the year after receiving food assistance. Many others on SNAP are looking for work but a job search is not a qualifying activity to avoid the three-month time limit.
  • Compared to the average participant, childless adults are less likely to participate in SNAP, receive SNAP for shorter period of times, and are less likely to go back to SNAP once they leave the program. This data was collected during the downturn and recovery when time limits were waived.

These findings show that it is job opportunities—and quality ones—that are lacking, not work ethic.

Case in point: job opportunities are very limited in North Carolina, making it difficult for many childless adults to meet the requirements associated with the time limit. The latest labor market data show that 89 of the state’s 100 counties had more jobless workers than job openings. Among just the 77 counties that qualified for a waiver, almost every one of them has more people looking for work than jobs available.

The time limit is harsh because it is not a test of one’s willingness to work. No matter how hard unemployed workers look for a job or training opportunity, if they don’t find one in three months, their food assistance is gone. As such, the federal law and state lawmakers’ move to voluntarily re-implement the time limit for the 77 counties greatly weakens the ability of SNAP to keep food on the table and provide a safety net to struggling childless adults.

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