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Do work requirements for SNAP assistance actually lead to economic self-sufficiency?


Later this spring, millions of Americans who receive federal assistance to buy food will need to work in order to continue getting aid. This is under the SNAP program, but do these kinds of work requirements lead to economic self-sufficiency? Wailin Wong and Darian Woods from our daily economics podcast, The Indicator From Planet Money, look at some new research.

WAILIN WONG, BYLINE: SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It used to be called food stamps. People qualify for SNAP if their household income falls below certain levels. They get money on a debit card to buy food at, say, a supermarket.

MARY ZAKI: You can only use that for food that you tend to prepare at home.

DARIAN WOODS, BYLINE: Mary Zaki is an economist at the University of Maryland. She studies programs like SNAP.

ZAKI: It's not really meant to cover all your food needs, but it's supposed to supplement your income.

WONG: There are also rules for a small subset of SNAP recipients - rules around working in order to keep getting benefits. These rules affect adults who are younger than 50, do not have a disability and do not have kids. And the work requirements were suspended at the start of the pandemic and will be going back into effect in a couple of months. Mary says there is a common refrain by policymakers who support these measures.

ZAKI: They believe, OK, people will have work requirements. And then that'll promote self-sufficiency among those who receive government payments, and then they don't need that aid anymore.

WONG: Earlier this month, Mary and four other researchers published a paper that tried to answer the question - does unconditional government aid discourage work? Their paper said results of previous research on work requirements in SNAP have produced mixed results, likely because of the kinds of surveys that economists have relied on for data.

WOODS: The breakthrough for Mary and her colleagues was getting access to granular data from one particular state. They studied a group in Virginia during and after the Great Recession.

WONG: In Virginia, work requirements for SNAP were suspended between 2009 and 2013. This provided the researchers with a kind of natural experiment to see what happened in Virginia with and without work requirements. If SNAP participants went from unemployed to working or started earning more money, those outcomes would show up in the data. But when the researchers looked at employment and wages for this group 18 months after work requirements went back into effect, they couldn't find any improvement. There was basically zero increase in employment and earnings.

WOODS: At the same time, SNAP participation among this group went down almost 40% - so 40% fewer people getting these benefits. So what does this show?

ZAKI: They are facing a more immediate barrier to working than the disincentives from receiving SNAP benefits.

WONG: For example, homelessness or having fewer sources of income. So Mary says the ones that lost their SNAP benefits didn't have a lot of options, and it wasn't as simple as just going out and getting a job.

ZAKI: If the goal is to produce self-sufficiency, then it's important to identify what these more immediate barriers are to working rather than going the route of work requirements.

WONG: Negotiations are starting now over the new Farm Bill, which is what funds SNAP. And that means work requirements and the future of SNAP are expected to be the subject of intense political debate.

Wailin Wong...

WOODS: Darian Woods, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Wailin Wong
Wailin Wong is a long-time business and economics journalist who's reported from a Chilean mountaintop, an embalming fluid factory and lots of places in between. She is a host of The Indicator from Planet Money. Previously, she launched and co-hosted two branded podcasts for a software company and covered tech and startups for the Chicago Tribune. Wailin started her career as a correspondent for Dow Jones Newswires in Buenos Aires. In her spare time, she plays violin in one of the oldest community orchestras in the U.S.
Darian Woods is a reporter and producer for The Indicator from Planet Money. He blends economics, journalism, and an ear for audio to tell stories that explain the global economy. He's reported on the time the world got together and solved a climate crisis, vaccine intellectual property explained through cake baking, and how Kit Kat bars reveal hidden economic forces.