The highly-debated debt ceiling deal, which Biden signed on Saturday to prevent the country from falling into default, made cuts to federal spending— including new work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Concessions with Republican legislators increased the age at which SNAP beneficiaries would need to provide proof of work to 54 years old, an act that anti-hunger advocates say will be detrimental for older adults who will lose their eligibility. The deal does however make some exceptions to the new rule, exempting veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and young adults aged 18 to 24 who were previously in foster care from the new requirements.
“There was a lot at stake for the country but the provisions that were included with regard to SNAP really did not have to be added to the debt ceiling,” says Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC). “The amount of money that gets taken away from people on SNAP as a result of this debt deal has enormous consequences for them on an individual level.”
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The deal is the latest to affect SNAP, which was already impacted earlier this year after Congress ended pandemic-era emergency allotments to the program, affecting more than 41 million Americans.
Here’s what to know about the deal.
What are the work requirement changes?
Previous SNAP eligibility provisions required able-bodied adults who were 18-49 years-old without dependents to show they were enrolled in a job training program or worked for at least 80 hours a month in order to receive SNAP assistance.
The new work requirements would expand that to affect adults aged 18-54, meaning older adults will have to prove that they reach the monthly 80 hours quota. The change will be gradual. In October 2023, adults aged 50-52 will have to abide by the new rules. By the fall of 2024, adults up to 54 will have to adhere to new standards.
“People who are in that age category may have had decades of work experience, but yet now something’s happened to their situation [and they will] need to get a new skill set [to return to work],” Yellen says.
Estimates by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities show that some 750,000 adults aged 50-54 will lose food assistance as a result of the change, which Republicans vouched for under the presumption that it would force people to find employment instead of relying on government assistance. A study by the American Economic Association, however, found that SNAP’s work-reporting requirement does not “increase economic self-sufficiency.” Instead, it decreased overall participation in the program by 53%.
Anti-hunger advocates warn that the benefits of new exemptions for veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and young adults aged 18 to 24 who were previously in foster care, all depend on how the change will be carried out. “[The impact of this change] is going to depend a lot on how this is implemented, how much the word gets to [potential beneficiaries], and how well trained caseworkers are going to be on this,” Vollinger tells TIME.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO)—which produces objective analyses of economic issues for Congress—, however, recently assessed that the debt ceiling SNAP changes would cost the country an additional $2.1 million, not reduce costs. New work requirements for older adults alone would have cut spending by $6.5 billion, but because a new subset of people are exempt from the work requirement, an additional 78,000 people would gain benefits, the CBO wrote.
Vollinger, however, notes that their assessment does not take into account the reality of how SNAP works across the U.S. She says the new exemptions do not necessarily mean that all newly eligible recipients will be able to enroll in the program, which she describes as a “rigorous application process.” “It’s one thing to look at a category on paper and say, ‘This is the group we don’t think [work requirements] should be subject to. That’s not how it plays out in reality,” Vollinger says.
What else is in the deal?
Under previous standards prior to the debt ceiling deal, each state had the jurisdiction to waive work requirements on a case-by-case basis. Each state received a certain number of hardship exemptions per year, equivalent to 15% of the number of individuals in the state that were subject to SNAP’s work requirements. Typically, states would be able to accrue and carry over to the following year if not all of the exemptions were used.
And in the past, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities says, those hardship exemptions were used to help survivors of domestic abuse, or to help people who were working less hours a week due to temporary barriers.
The new changes, however, reduce states’ hardship exemptions to 8%, and do not allow states to carry over unused exemptions for the following year.
“Let’s suppose you’re a state and you don’t feel you need the exemptions right now [but] you think you’re gonna have greater problems at other times and so you just haven’t used them,” says Vollinger. “This now is going to restrict the state if you don’t use them in the current year you have them. You get one more year to use them and then they go away.”
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