Legal Aid Strongly Opposes Attempts to Impose Additional Mandatory Work Requirements on Vulnerable SNAP Beneficiaries
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Last week, Legal Aid filed comments opposing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s proposed rule change that would make it more difficult for the District of Columbia and all states to obtain waivers of onerous work requirements for a population of SNAP beneficiaries known as ABAWDs (Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents).

Federal law limits SNAP eligibility for childless unemployed and underemployed adults ages 18-50 (except for those who are exempt) to just three months out of every three years unless they are able to obtain and maintain an average of 20 hours a week of employment or participation in other narrowly defined sets of activities. However, federal law allows states to request a waiver of the time limit for areas within the state that have an unemployment rate of 10 percent or higher or, based on other economic indicators, do not have “sufficient jobs to provide employment for individuals” subject to the work requirements.

The District of Columbia has such a waiver based on the fact that its unemployment rate is 20 percent higher than the national average over a recent 24-month time period. Implementation of the proposed rule would make it harder for the District and other areas with elevated unemployment rates to qualify for such waivers of the time limit by adding a seven-percent unemployment rate floor to the requirement that an area have an unemployment rate 20 percent higher than the national average over the past 24 months.

Legal Aid opposes implementation of this rule because it would have a devastating impact on tens of thousands of ABAWDs in the District of Columbia who already must contend with reduced economic opportunity, racial disparity, and limited access to food. Implementation of this proposed rule will do nothing to decrease employment barriers for the anywhere from 11,000 to 20,000 ABAWDs (many of whom are people of color) who will lose their SNAP as a result. Instead, implementation will lead to the very things that SNAP was designed to counteract — food insecurity resulting from food deserts, and poverty due to joblessness that results at least in part from larger labor market forces and racial disparities in unemployment rates.

  • Exacerbating geographic unemployment differentials. In Wards 7 and 8 (where 40 percent of SNAP households – and an estimated 55 percent of ABAWDs – live), the median income is $35,000 and $38,000, respectively, compared to $83,000 for the District as a whole, and the unemployment rate in November 2017 was 10.2 and 13.0 percent, respectively. Meanwhile, in Wards 2 and 3 (where seven percent of SNAP beneficiaries live) the unemployment rate was 3.5 and 3.6 percent, respectively, in 2017.
  • Exacerbating racial unemployment differentials. Implementation of this proposed rule would also disparately impact African-Americans in the District. Wards 7 and 8 are 92-percent African-American, the only racial group whose unemployment rate remains higher after the recession of 2008 then it was before the recession. In the District of Columbia — where roughly 48 percent of residents are African American — black unemployment rates are 5 times white unemployment rates, a disparity that is higher than in any other state in the nation.
  • Worsening hunger and lack of access to food. Furthermore, implementation of this proposed rule would also lead to even greater food insecurity in the District. In addition to having fewer job opportunities for its residents, Wards 7 and 8 also contain the majority of food deserts located in the District, which makes it harder for these residents to meet their nutritional needs. The loss of SNAP benefits for tens of thousands of ABAWDs would surely exacerbate this existing problem.

Implementation of this proposed rule would be especially harmful because mandatory work requirements do not increase economic self-sufficiency and stability of recipients of public benefits. In an analysis of the impact of work requirements in SNAP and TANF, the Urban Institute concludes, “the evidence shows work requirements fail to achieve their goal for two primary reasons: [w]ork requirements don’t necessarily help people find jobs, and certainly not jobs that lift people out of poverty;” and “[t]he red tape associated with work requirements can cause people to lose access to vital supports even when they are working or should be exempt from the requirements.” And these types of mandatory work requirements are unlikely to lead to “self-sufficiency” among ABAWDs according to the Department of Agriculture’s own 2002 study, which found that “ABAWD leavers’ employment rates [were] significant, but earnings and incomes [were] low and their poverty rates [were] high.”

Legal Aid also opposes the proposed rule because it is inconsistent with congressional intent. The Administration’s proposed rule seeks to end run Congress, which just concluded a review and reauthorization of SNAP in the 2018 Farm Bill. Initially, the House-passed Farm Bill (HR 2) proposed several restrictive ABAWD-related policies, many of which mirror those in the proposed rule. However, the Senate explicitly rejected most of the House’s proposed radical changes, stating in the Conference Report accompanying the final legislation, “[t]he Managers also acknowledge that waivers from the ABAWD time limit are necessary in times of recession and in areas with labor surpluses or higher rates of unemployment.”

Legal Aid urges the Department of Agriculture to withdraw this proposed rule and propose one that will improve, rather than deny, access to benefits such as SNAP and Medicaid that lead to greater economic stability for our clients.

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