The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP; formerly known as the Food Stamp Program) is a crucial part of the safety net in the United States, providing benefits to roughly 41 million Americans per month to maintain a nutritious diet. Following welfare reform in 1996, SNAP became the only truly universal means-tested safety net program in the U.S. In that same year, however, work requirements in SNAP expanded, limiting the efficacy of the program to support all low-income households.
In general, work requirements in means-tested programs are meant to force individuals deemed “work-ready” to increase or maintain their work effort every month by withholding benefits if a person is not working a minimum number of hours, engaged in certain training or education programs, or (for some programs) actively looking for employment.
Since 1996, stringent work requirements for “able-bodied adults without dependents” (commonly referred to as ABAWDs) have been layered over pre-existing (since the 1970s) general work requirements for many working-aged adults receiving SNAP. Debate over whether to change SNAP work requirement rules has intensified in recent years. Proponents of work requirements argue they encourage more people to work, whereas critics say they create barriers to accessing SNAP without meaningfully changing work-related behavior.
There have been recent changes to SNAP work requirements. As part of the debt ceiling negotiation in 2023, the criteria for who is subject to ABAWD work requirements changed, as did the rules governing states’ ability to provide individual hardship exemptions from this requirement. These changes began taking effect on September 1 and come on the heels of the expiration of pandemic-era nationwide suspension of work requirements.
Furthermore, the current Farm Bill—the major legislation that sets rules for SNAP—expired on September 30, 2023. Congress has begun discussions on a new bill, and among the issues on the table are further changes to work requirements.
In this FAQ, we focus on the work requirements that apply only to ABAWDs, but we explain the general work requirements and how they interact with the ABAWD work requirements. We offer key takeaways to help guide an understanding of work requirement policy, the people subject to work requirements, and features of the labor market in which these SNAP participants work. We provide detailed answers to commonly asked questions about SNAP work requirement policy, and we summarize rigorous new research evidence on the efficacy of work requirements and SNAP at encouraging work.
Our conclusion from a review of the literature on work requirements is that the best evidence shows they do not increase employment.
Our conclusion from a review of the literature on work requirements is that the best evidence shows they do not increase employment. Moreover, this research finds work requirements cause a large decrease in participation in SNAP. This is concerning because many SNAP recipients, especially those subject to the ABAWD work requirements, have little safety net to rely on besides SNAP. Additionally, we discuss evidence that those subject to the ABAWD work requirements face difficulty meeting the requirements through no fault of their own, but because of the types of jobs available to them. Finally, we summarize research that suggests work requirements limit SNAP’s ability to act as an automatic stabilizer during recessions.
While we try to explain clearly what work requirement rules are in law and as regulated, in practice, the implementation of work requirements strays from these complicated rules. Rule complexity, administrative burdens, inconsistent implementation, and the realities of the low-wage labor market make it difficult to comply with the rules. Consequently, work requirement penalties—losing access to SNAP if one fails to comply—affect more people than if the rules were implemented exactly as Congress intends.
We believe that the evidence supports ending or severely limiting ABAWD work requirements.