Five Steps Congress Can Take to Encourage Work in the Food Stamps Program

Report Hunger and Food Programs

Five Steps Congress Can Take to Encourage Work in the Food Stamps Program

April 19, 2018 17 min read Download Report

Authors: Robert Rector, Jamie Hall and Mimi Teixeira


The House Agriculture Committee released a farm bill last week that seeks to reform the food stamp welfare program by encouraging work-capable individuals to work or participate in other activities in order to receive benefits. This is an important goal: Work is critical to promoting human dignity and establishing fairness between the taxpayer providing assistance and the person receiving it. Changes are needed in the bill in order to create work requirements for the food stamp program that are effective, reasonable, and mitigate the program’s substantial marriage penalties. Reform should encourage parental marriage. This critical goal can be accomplished in a way that complements—rather than competes with—work. Combining the goals of work and marriage is essential to improving the well-being of the poor.

Key Takeaways

The food stamp program does not adequately encourage work-capable people receiving benefits to work, and puts financial penalties on unmarried parents who marry.

Congress should set work requirements for the food stamp program that are effective, reasonable, and mitigate the program’s substantial marriage penalties.

The House Agriculture Committee released a bill last week to reform the food stamps program; substantial changes are needed to achieve these goals.

The House Agriculture Committee released a farm billREF last week that includes provisions to reform the food stamp welfare program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) after its renaming in the 2008 farm bill, by encouraging work-capable individuals to work or participate in other activities in order to receive benefits. This is an important goal; these adults can and should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving assistance. Welfare programs should assist those in need, and welfare should not be a one-way handout. Work requirements in welfare promote greater self-support and establish a reciprocal obligation between the beneficiary and the taxpayers who fund the benefits. Work requirements should be structured in reasonable ways in order to be effective and have broad-based public support. In addition, any reform should encourage and not discourage marriage.

Achieving these goals will require significant changes to the bill. As currently drafted, it is unclear that these provisions would increase work in reasonable, effective ways.REF In its current form, the bill does not appear to strengthen work requirements significantly for work-capable adults without dependents, despite the fact that this group has the least need for assistance and work requirements can be most effective with this population. To be effective, policy should establish work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) in ways that are reasonable and likely to be effective, in order to decrease dependence among work-capable adults while reducing, rather than exacerbating, the program’s marriage penalties.

Food Stamp Reform Needed. The federal means-tested welfare system consists of 89 programs that provide cash, food, housing, medical care, and social services for poor and lower-income Americans at an annual cost of over $1.1 trillion.REF The food stamp program is one of the largest of these programs. Food stamp use has increased by 14 million since 2008;REF enrollment stands at 42 million people. Spending today is around $68 billion, 80 percent higher than it was in fiscal year 2008.REF In 2005, 6.1 percent of the population was on food stamps. Today, 13 percent of the population is on food stamps—and the unemployment rate is lower than it was in 2005 (5.1 percent relative to 4.4 percent).REF

One group that has significantly increased its participation in the food stamp program is ABAWDs. Under the federal definition, an individual is considered an “able-bodied adult without dependents” if he or she is between 18 years and 49 years of age, is not caring for a child under age 18 or residing in a household with a child under age 18, is not physically or mentally disabled, and is not pregnant. At present, there are around 3 million ABAWDs receiving food stamp benefits, at a cost of around $6 billion per year.REF

Federal policy limits ABAWDs who do not work to three months of food stamp benefits in a 36-month period. After three months, the recipient faces a nominal work requirement that can be met by working at least 20 hours per week, participating in qualifying education and training activities for at least 20 hours per week, or performing community service for an amount of time determined by monthly benefits received.

However, under the 1996 welfare reform law, a state can request waivers from the food stamp ABAWD work requirement for the entire state or parts of the state if the state or area has higher unemployment rates or a “lack of sufficient jobs.” As of 2018, five states and the District of Columbia still have total waivers, 28 states have partial waivers, and 1,287 of the nation’s 3,142 counties are “labor surplus areas” as designated by the Department of Labor.REF Due to the large number of exempted counties, the current ABAWD work requirement has little effect.REF

Reform Should Strengthen Today’s Hollow Work Requirement in Reasonable and Effective Ways

The current proposal requires changes to achieve this goal.

  1. Eliminate labor surplus waivers from the ABAWD work requirement. Work requirements on ABAWDs and other recipients should be strengthened by eliminating all geographic exemptions.

    The current bill continues to effectively exempt ABAWDs from work requirements if they live in a “labor surplus area” or other area with above-average unemployment. The SNAP Quality Control DataREF indicate that about 2 million ABAWDs are exempted from work requirements by this provision.

    One provision in the bill seeks to limit a tactic currently used by states to increase the number of persons exempt from work requirements. This tactic combines “areas” with very different unemployment rates and averages their rate. While the bill seeks to modify this exemption by eliminating the option of combining areas, the bill, current law, and existing regulations all fail to define the key word “area” and leave the critical definition to the states—undercutting the effect of the provision.REF

    Even if this definition were clarified and the loophole closed, it is unlikely that a ban on combining areas would dramatically reduce existing work exemptions. In order to establish meaningful work requirements, policymakers must eliminate the waivers for labor surplus areas and other geographic areas as designated in 7 U.S. Code § 2015 (o)(4)(A).REF

  2. Impose effective and reasonable sanctions. To achieve the goal of encouraging work, failure to perform work requirements should result in sanctions that are prompt, consistent, and forgiving. This will stimulate constructive choices and encourage individuals to work. An individual who fails to fulfill an assigned activity such as job searching, training, or community service should lose benefits in the subsequent month. On the flip side, non-performing individuals should be able to regain benefits when they re-engage according to the terms of the work requirement. If a person fails to work in one month and is sanctioned and then chooses to return to work or a training program the following month, he should be allowed to earn future benefits.

    Currently under the bill, if an individual fails to perform a required work activity for a single month, he will lose eligibility for food stamps for the next 12 months. If he fails to meet work requirements more than once, he will lose eligibility for 36 months. The severity of these penalties is unnecessary and counter-productive. The sanctions’ severity means that they are not likely to be enforced; bureaucracies will face incentives to find other legal ways to determine that recipients met work requirements regardless of whether they actually did.

  3. Adopt further improvements to work requirements. Under the bill, if a parent refuses to perform required activities, only the parent’s portion of the household food stamp check is reduced. Experience in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program shows that a more effective approach is to reduce the household’s total benefits when work requirements are not fulfilled. The most effective system is to adjust benefits pro rata; if the parent performs half the required activity, the household should receive half the normal benefits. Future benefits can quickly be restored by raising activity to required levels. This system is fair and has the strongest effect in promoting work and reducing dependence.

  4. Strengthen penalties on states that fail to enforce work requirements. States should not receive federal funds if they do not enforce the law. States should face proportionate financial penalties for failing to enforce federal work requirements. If a state does not enforce work requirements, the state’s federal grant should be decreased for each individual who is subject to a work requirement, fails to work, and still receives benefits. As drafted, the bill appears to nod to the need for better penalties, but the mechanism used appears unlikely to achieve the goal.

  5. Structure the work requirement so it does not further penalize marriage. The bill should impose the same work requirement on all families with similarly aged children. Work should be promoted by establishing uniform work requirements on all families with children over the age of one year (i.e., one work requirement on a whole household regardless of whether there is one parent or two in the household); while all families, both married and single-parent, with children under age one would be exempt.

    The current food stamp program has embedded marriage penalties. For example, a mother and father with two children making $20,000 each will lose $6,302 in welfare benefits per year if they marry, which amounts to 15 percent of their total combined earnings. The portion of that loss due to food stamps is $1,824.

    This marriage penalty occurs because, under current law, if a father marries the mother and resides in the home, his income is counted toward eligibility and used to reduce the food stamp benefits received by the mother and children. However, if the father is unmarried, his income generally is not counted, and the mother and children receive substantially higher benefits from most welfare programs.REF

    According to federal law, the income of an absent non-married parent is not counted toward food stamp eligibility and benefit levels if they do not live in the same household. This is the major component of the marriage penalty.

    In addition, a cohabiting parent or partner who is not the parent of a child and who lives in the household may often be hidden from the welfare office providing food stamp benefits. A comparison of data shows that the number of single-parent households receiving benefits according to the USDA is roughly 1.25 million more than the number of eligible households in this category according to census survey data. This disparity suggests that there are many households in which undisclosed adult members receive benefits that are administered to the household.REF

    Finally, a cohabiting partner who lives in the household can be legally excluded from the household for SNAP purposes as long as he claims to customarily purchase and prepare his meals apart from others. Of course, that cannot be verified. Cohabiting parents can be excluded if one partner claims they do not live together. Residence is difficult to verify as well. This makes it easy to leave off anyone who can make a claim to living somewhere else, even if he is the father of a child in the household, as long as he is not married to the mother.REF

    The bill does not reduce this disincentive to marriage and actually could make the situation worse in two ways. First, among married couple families with all children at least age six, both the mother and father appear to be subject to a 20-hour-per-week work requirement. In a single parent family, the parent would face only one 20-hour work requirement.REF Thus, the work requirements on married parents appear to be doubled even though the married couple would receive only slightly more benefits than a single parent household with the same number of children.

    Each spouse in a married couple would then have to separately meet the work requirement, even if one of the spouses is already working 40 hours per week. For example, under the bill, a married couple with two children at least six years old, in which one spouse was employed for 40 hours per week at the minimum wage, would face an added work requirement of 20 hours per week on the second spouse, for a total of 60 hours of combined work. The family would see their SNAP benefits cut by $1,632 per year if the second spouse did not work. This provision, requiring that both spouses be employed at all times, undermines one possible advantage of marriage which is that one spouse may primarily support the family financially while the other spouse primarily cares for the children.REF

    Second, for families with children under age six, one parent in a married couple familyREF is subject to the bill’s work requirements while a single parent family with the same age children is exempt from work.REF A welfare system that financially penalizes low-income parents for marrying and then imposes a more stringent work requirement on married families will, in the long run, discourage marriage. It is important to establish work requirements that do not further penalize marriage because marriage both decreases the probability of a family staying in poverty and promotes child well-being.REF

    It is not difficult to design a work requirement that promotes work but encourages marriage by mitigating the substantial marriage penalties that are embedded in the food stamp program. For example, a married couple with children could be subject to a single work requirement of 20 hours per week that could be fulfilled by either spouse or shared between them. This would promote work and reduce marriage penalties and thereby strengthen marriage. Unfortunately, the proposed legislation focuses exclusively on promoting work and ignores the issue of marriage. This is a mistake because in the long term, marriage is as—or more—effective at raising incomes and reducing poverty than does simple employment. In addition, marriage has a greater effect on adult and child well-being and the upward mobility of children.


The House Agriculture Committee is right to set goals of improving work rates in the food stamps program. Work is critical to promoting human dignity, happiness, and establishing fairness between the taxpayer providing assistance and the person receiving it. Work requirements help the welfare system achieve its goal of reducing poverty and increasing adult and child wellbeing. Nearly 90 percent of Americans agree that “able-bodied adults who receive cash, food, housing, and medical assistance should be required to work or prepare for work as a condition of receiving those government benefits.”

Reform also should encourage rather than discourage parental marriage. Marriage is a very important factor in promoting the well-being of adults and children. This goal can be accomplished in a way that complements—rather than competes—with work. Combining the goals of work and marriage is essential to improving the well-being of the poor. Over 80 percent of Americans agree that “the welfare system should not penalize parents when they get married.”REF

The above five changes would do much to ensure the bill achieves these important goals.

—Robert Rector is a Senior Research Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, of the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation. Jamie Bryan Hall is a Senior Policy Analyst for Empirical Studies in Domestic Policy Studies. Mimi Teixeira is a Graduate Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies.


Robert Rector
Robert Rector

Senior Research Fellow, Center for Health and Welfare Policy

Jamie Hall
Jamie Hall

Research Fellow, Center for Data Analysis

Mimi Teixeira

Graduate Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies, Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity