An estimated 17,300 Kentuckians will soon be at risk of losing much-needed grocery money due to newly reinstated requirements that tie food aid to reporting employment hours. Unless these Kentuckians can complete an onerous reporting process to prove they’re working an average of 20 hours per week for 33 out of every 36 months, their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits will be taken away.
The requirement, which applies to adults between 18 and 49 who do not have a child in the home or a documented disability, was waived during the past three years due to the pandemic and ensuing downturn. It restarts this year in most counties, threatening the health and stability of thousands of Kentucky families.
This SNAP work reporting requirement is based on the faulty assumption that people getting help with groceries need the threat of losing that assistance to spur them to work. But most adults using SNAP already work, and there is no evidence that requiring an additional reporting process that strips away grocery money increases work participation or reduces poverty.
Rather, the requirement is very effective at tripping people up with complicated paperwork so that they lose food aid. As Congress debates the Farm Bill and the next federal budget, they should continue to fully invest in SNAP as our most vital tool to reduce hunger and eliminate the work reporting requirement.
An estimated 17,300 Kentuckians that need help putting food on the table could lose assistance
The federal Public Health Emergency related to COVID-19 ends May 11, setting the stage for the return of SNAP work reporting requirements in most Kentucky counties. Kentucky’s 17,300 SNAP recipients between 18 and 49 without children or a reported disability will soon receive a notice from the state informing them of the new paperwork they must complete, and the possibility of losing their food assistance. In July, the requirement will go into effect, meaning SNAP recipients who fail to document and report their 20 hours of weekly work in July, August and September will lose food aid in October.
There are 9,494 people in 39 counties, largely in eastern Kentucky, that have high unemployment rates or so few available jobs that they will be exempt from reporting their work hours. Counties that just fail to qualify for this exemption have the most people at risk of losing benefits. Jefferson County has both the highest percentage (6.5%) and the largest number (5,486) of SNAP recipients required to report their work hours.
In addition to having a child in the home or a documented disability, SNAP recipients can be exempt from the requirements if they are physically or mentally “unfit for work,” regularly participating in substance use treatment or participating at least half-time in school, training or work program, such as the SNAP Employment & Training Program. These exemptions require additional documentation or verification.
To see if you qualify for an exemption, you can check out our SNAP Time Limit Screening Tool.
SNAP works for working families in Kentucky
The majority of Kentuckians who benefit from SNAP are children (41%). SNAP also helps older Kentuckians (23%), people with a disability (29%) and working Kentuckians (17%) afford enough food. Of adult SNAP participants who are able to work, recent studies found over 81% do work, but earn wages low enough – either because of an unpredictable schedule, too few hours, inadequate sick or family leave, or simply because their hourly pay is so little – that they qualify for the program. There is a one in four chance, for example, that a cashier at the grocery store or a cook at a restaurant in Kentucky use SNAP to buy their own food.
Census data shows the crucial importance of federal nutrition programs for families with low incomes. The Supplemental Poverty Measure shows, for instance, that SNAP lifted 4.6 million people out of poverty and public assistance in general significantly reduced child poverty in 2020.
Work requirements don’t work
Extensive past research shows forcing people to report their work hours in order to keep public assistance does not increase work and does nothing to create better job opportunities for people that need them. Justifications for these reporting requirements are based on false, demeaning assumptions about who uses SNAP benefits, implying that they must be compelled to enter the workforce. This claim ignores the economic reality that SNAP participants face, the precarious nature of low-wage employment, the impact of the lack of paid sick and family leave and ongoing labor market discrimination.
These requirements are, however, extremely effective at taking benefits away from people, substantially increasing hardship by making people struggle to meet basic needs. When a similar limit was in place between 2018 and 2020, it resulted in 39,300 Kentuckians losing food assistance. In one recent study, work reporting requirements resulted in 53% of affected participants losing assistance and disproportionately impacted people without stable housing, with no effects on employment or earnings.
Recent federal policy discussions with the upcoming 2023 Farm Bill and federal budget have raised the issue of SNAP cuts and the possible expansion of reporting requirements. These policy changes would be devastating to SNAP recipients and local economies. The evidence that SNAP has long-term health and economic benefits is undeniable, as is the proof that requiring more paperwork from participants doesn’t work to improve their wellbeing. Congress should invest in SNAP in the next federal budget and eliminate these reporting requirements in the next Farm Bill.