Expanding SNAP Work Requirements: a Dangerous Game Ending in Poverty



As Congress aims to pass a new farm bill, the House version is bad for the health of American families, especially those that are already mired in the tangled cycle of poverty.

In the classic children’s board game Chutes & Ladders, players move along a game board by rolling a dice, encountering either ladders that advance their progress, or chutes that send them slipping backward. Reporter, Nessia Berner Wong's Chutes & Ladder analogy for the predicament 40 million Americans are soon to be in is fitting. The game carries an eerie resemblance for those who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to move them past the scary pitfalls associated with income inequality and food insecurity.

How these changes would affect SNAP recipients has been greatly speculated, all with dire predictions. 

The Urban Institute’s newly developed Analysis of Transfers, Taxes, and Income Security estimates the number of individuals and households, including households with children, in 2018 that would be affected by changes to SNAP outlined in the 2018 Farm Bill.  

Among the 38.9 million people participating in SNAP in an average month of 2018, 7.9 million, or 20 percent, would be subject to the proposed work requirements (slated to take effect in 2021) based on their work patterns in any given month.

Among these 7.9 million,  

  • 5.2 million participants, or 66 percent, would not meet the proposed work requirement based on their current work patterns for a month, although some might receive an exemption or live in an area where the requirements are waived; and
  • 2.7 million participants, or 34 percent, would likely meet the work requirements based on their current work patterns for a month.  

Also noteworthy are people working intermittently, a common experience among SNAP participants. When examined SNAP program participants over a year, 9.8 million would be subject to, but would not meet, work requirements for at least one month in 2018. But 52 percent of this group would meet the work requirements in at least one other month in the year.

These participants could lose SNAP benefits if they cannot find a job or enroll in an employment or training program within one month of falling out of compliance.

It is estimated that 2.7 million SNAP households with children have adults who are subject to work requirements. Among these households, 1.9 million, or 69 percent, in a given month would not meet the requirements, even though more than half do meet them in at least one other month of the year.


The expanded work requirements have become a lightning rod issue that some say could threaten passage of the farm bill, which has historically been an exercise in bipartisan negotiation. No Democrats in the House have voiced support for the bill as it’s written; House Republicans are still working to garner enough votes to pass the controversial measure.

More than 42 million Americans  receive food stamp benefits despite the low national unemployment rate of 3.9 percent. The average monthly benefit per person is roughly $130. The push to strengthen work requirements for those receiving public assistance stretches beyond the food stamp program.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order in mid-April giving all Cabinet departments 90 days to produce plans that impose work requirements on able-bodied aid recipients.

The proposed new Farm Bill would exacerbate the cycle of poverty for millions of Americans by increasing requirements for food benefits.  This policy will punish people solely for being poor.  Instead of making life harder for those struggling with poverty, Congress should help create conditions for people to live healthy and productive lives.
— Phil Telfeyan, Equal Justice Under Law Executive Director