For people experiencing homelessness, wondering where your next meal will come from is a daily challenge. While soup kitchens, churches, and food banks play an extremely important role in helping to reduce hunger, it is often not enough to ensure a basic diet. That is where the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, comes in.
SNAP helps reduce hunger for millions of struggling Americans, including many who are homeless. This vital assistance to keep food on the table will begin to dry up for over half a million of the nation’s most vulnerable people. This year, 23 states around the country are reinstating a strict time limit on how long unemployed individuals between the ages of 18-49, who are not disabled and not caring for children, are able to receive SNAP.
The time limit, originally created under the 1996 welfare reform law, requires childless, able-bodied SNAP recipients to be working or in a work training program for at least 20 hours a week in order to receive assistance for more than three months in any three years. States are allowed to waive the time limit in areas with high and sustained unemployment, and many did during the recession and its aftermath. Most states have counties and other localities that are still eligible because they continue to suffer from high unemployment rates. Even if eligible, several states are beginning to opt out of these waivers state-wide, and reinstating this strict time limit even in areas where the job market is bleak. This subjects childless, able-bodied adults to the time limit, regardless of how hard they are looking for work or whether work training is available to them.
These individuals are some of the poorest in the country. They represent a diverse group of men and women, including veterans, part-time workers and homeless adults. For most, SNAP is the only form of assistance they qualify to receive. Those facing cuts have extremely low incomes — an average of $2,000 per year. And many have significant barriers to employment including limited education and skills, or learning disabilities. Many cannot find jobs. Others can only find part-time employment.
In addition to these barriers, these men and women are often facing a job market where good paying, full time jobs are hard to come by and work training is almost non-existent. Very few states offer recipients a place in a work training program 20 hours a week. And states are not required to do so.
The time limit has a few narrow exemptions. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that runs SNAP, has recently clarified that individuals facing chronic homelessness can be exempted from the time limit for those who are physically or mentally unfit for work. This offers a critical opportunity to help homeless adults keep their food assistance. States should be urged to identify homeless SNAP recipients during the application and recertification process and exempt them from the time limit. States must send a request to the USDA to have this option, so shelter providers and other community groups serving homeless individuals can play an important role in making sure your state exempts homeless adults from the time limit.
Cutting off food assistance to those experiencing homelessness won’t make it easier for them to find full time work or help them find stable housing; it will only increase hunger and hardship. States should do what they can to ensure that those struggling to find work are not penalized by going hungry.
Center on Budget and Policy Priorities