March 15, 2019

There's No Time Limit on Hunger: USDA's Plan to Limit Food Assistance Ignores Barriers to Work for SNAP recipients

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed a rule that would limit the flexibility of states to waive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) time limits for unemployed and underemployed recipients who live in places where there aren’t enough jobs. The proposal ignores the unique barriers that many SNAP recipients face finding work in today’s job market.

Most childless adults in SNAP who are abled bodied can only get benefits for three months every three years. These SNAP recipients are called “ABAWDs,” which is short for “able-bodied adults without dependents.” To remain eligible for longer than the three-month limit, ABAWDs are required to work 80 hours each month. Of course, not everyone who is an ABAWD can find a job, especially one that gives them this many hours. Right now, to prevent hardship on ABAWDs when jobs are scarce, USDA allows states leeway to temporarily waive the 3-month SNAP time limit in geographical areas without sufficient jobs or where unemployment is high, including Labor Surplus Areas (LSAs).

But under the proposed rule, USDA would significantly restrict the flexibility of states to get waivers of SNAP time limits. Among other things, the new rule would block states from waiving time limits except when the general unemployment rate is at least 7 percent or higher, even in areas identified by the federal government as LSAs.

According to USDA’s own estimates, approximately 755,000 SNAP recipients may lose their benefits under the rule.

Florida, which has one of the highest percentages of ABAWDs in its SNAP program in the country, has the potential for being particularly hard hit by USDA’s proposal, especially during coming recessions. Plus, Florida’s susceptibility to hurricanes and tornados makes it vulnerable to post-disaster economic slowdowns at any time. If USDA adopts the proposed rule, Florida may be left empty-handed in its efforts to help struggling SNAP recipients in an economic downturn.

USDA’s plan to equate the employment prospects of ABAWDs with other job seekers compares apples to oranges. Thirty-five percent of ABAWDs are African American and 13 percent are Hispanic.  Further, approximately 85 percent of ABAWDs have no more than a GED or high school diploma. Of that 85 percent, more than a quarter (28 percent) have less than a high school education.  These demographics, while diverse, are different from the demographics of the population as a whole.

These differences make it harder for ABAWDs in Florida to find jobs. The unemployment rate for African American Floridians is almost double that of white Floridians. For Hispanics, the rate in Florida is 0.8 percentage points higher than for whites.

Additionally, persons with less education fare worse in the job market in Florida. ABAWDs in Florida are also mired in poverty and have unique barriers to getting jobs, such as homelessness and lack of transportation.

Sadly, although ABAWDs are a diverse group, they do have one thing in common: They all face an uphill battle finding jobs. While Florida’s economy is on the rebound, unemployment lows do not automatically translate into more jobs for them.

The Florida Policy Institute (FPI) will be submitting comments to the USDA opposing this proposal, which would be harmful to Floridians and other low-income families around the country trying to put food on the table. FPI will provide additional resources in the coming weeks for those interested in submitting comments on this harmful rule. All comments are due by April 2, 2019.

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