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Congress made SNAP work rules stricter. Food advocates worry about following Kansas' lead

An older man holds a sack of potatoes while standing next to a pile of potatoes. Cars line up next to him.
Eva Tesfaye
Harvest Public Media
Volunteers load food into cars at the Franklin Center's Food Pantry. Many people who come to the Kansas City, Kansas pantry are either ineligible for SNAP or find the application process too difficult. "They asked too many questions for you needing assistance. If you've got so much a car or all of this, it's limited," said one Kansas resident who visited the pantry.

Congress expanded work requirements for food assistance during the debt ceiling negotiations, a move that would normally happen in the Farm Bill. Shortly before that, the state of Kansas made similar changes.

When cars drive up to the Franklin Center food pantry’s tents, volunteers load fresh food into open trunks — no explanation needed.

It’s a much different story for those seeking help through the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

Kurt Rietema, president of the Franklin Center in Kansas City, Kansas, said people often come to the pantry when SNAP restrictions make them ineligible or just become too complicated to deal with.

“Anytime we're putting extra requirements in order for people to get the help that they need,” he said, “that's not necessarily going to be a good thing for us.”

As part of the debt ceiling agreement, Congress recently raised the work requirement age limit to 55 for able-bodied adults without dependents in order to qualify for SNAP. Such recipients must prove that they are working, volunteering or in job training programs within three months or they lose their benefits.

It was a move that the state of Kansas had made a few months earlier, raising the age limit by 10 years to 59. Last year, state lawmakers also raised the number of hours people have to work, from 20 to 30 a week. For participants who fail to work the required hours, they have to complete an employment and training program.

Two teenage boys and a young women load fruits and vegetables into the trunk of a white SUV.
Eva Tesfaye
Harvest Public Media
Volunteers load food into cars at the Franklin Center's food pantry on Wednesday afternoons. Many of the recipients, especially those who are disabled, find drive-through pantries such as this one easier to access.

Both Kansas and federal Republican lawmakers say it’s about getting people working.

“If you are able-bodied and you don't have small children, you should be either working or trying to get a job or getting the training you need to get a job,” said House Rep. Don Bacon, a Republican from Nebraska. “And I think most Americans overwhelmingly agree with that.”

Falling through the cracks

In April, Kansas Republicans emphasized that the changes only applied to able-bodied adults without dependents, as they voted to override Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly’s veto of the bill.

“In order to buy food you need to have a job, that's what this is all about,” said Kansas Sen. Beverly Gossage.

Kansas ranks 49th in access to SNAP benefits, according to USDA data from 2021. Those opposed to work requirements say that they just further discourage people from even applying for help.

“Kansas lawmakers have really disintegrated the safety net for a whole lot of people because they are putting more hoops that folks would need to jump through to receive SNAP,” said Haley Kottler, a campaign director for Kansas Appleseed, an advocacy organization that works on food access issues.

Since last July, when the number of hours increased, there’s been a nearly 6% drop in enrollment for SNAP among able-bodied adults without dependents, according to the latest data from the Kansas Department of Children and Families.

Recent research on work requirements indicates that they lead to lower enrollment in SNAP, while having no effect on employment.

“Most of the research I have seen shows that work requirements do not really help in terms of helping people get jobs,” said Jonathan Coppess, director of the Gardner Agriculture Policy Program at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. “It doesn't really improve anybody's existence. Really, all it comes down to is more paperwork.”

With all the changes to SNAP in recent months, including an end to the pandemic emergency allotments for SNAP, food advocates are worried that people are falling through the cracks.

“We're very concerned about how the states are gonna be able to manage this in a manner that doesn't just remove people from food assistance just through paperwork problems,” said Karen Siebert, an advocacy and public policy advisor at Harvesters, a regional food assistance network based in Kansas City, Missouri.

More changes on the horizon?

When the farm bill comes up for renewal every five years, SNAP often becomes a hotly debated issue and has even stalled negotiations.

The program makes up the lion’s share of farm bill spending — accounting for about 85% of the 2023 Farm Bill’s estimated cost.

This year the debate moved outside of farm bill negotiations to become a major part of the debt ceiling debate, as Republicans pushed for, and got, an expansion of SNAP work requirements.

Both spending and participation for SNAP have increased over the past 12 years. The three month time limit for able-bodied adults without dependents to find jobs was suspended temporarily starting in fiscal year 2020. This continued through the fiscal years 2021 and 2022 but ended in 2023.
USDA, Economic Research Service using USDA, FNS data
Both spending and participation for SNAP have increased over the past 12 years. The three month time limit for able-bodied adults without dependents to find jobs was suspended temporarily starting in fiscal year 2020. This continued through the fiscal years 2021 and 2022 but ended in 2023.

House Rep. Don Bacon is also a member of the House Agriculture Committee. While he said he would have preferred the debate over SNAP eligibility was handled as part of the farm bill, tightening of work requirements was necessary.

“Our goal is to help people become independent and making it easy to be dependent on others is not a right policy position,” he said. “We need workers. Our economy is dependent upon it.”

Bacon said a majority of Americans support work requirements. According to the Axios-IPSOS American Health Index released in May, two-thirds of Americans support work requirements for SNAP and Medicaid.

The cost of SNAP, estimated to be more than $1 trillion over the next 10 years, often makes it a target for cost cutting measures, said Coppess. Tightening requirements is one way to shed cost.

“All work requirements really do is increase the bureaucratic burdens and then you just have fewer people in the program and fewer people in the program then saves money,” Coppess said.

Yet, that may not prove true with the latest changes.

While the recent negotiations expanded SNAP work requirements, Democrats were able to get exemptions for a wider group, including veterans, people without housing and those who recently aged out of foster care. The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the federal changes would actually increase SNAP enrollment and spending.

And that may mean negotiations over SNAP aren’t over. Some Republicans have indicated they want to reopen the debate over SNAP work requirements as part of the farm bill.

Rep. Bacon said he hopes that doesn’t happen.

“I feel like that should be off the table by and large,” he said.

Yet work requirements for SNAP stalled both the 2014 and 2018 farm bills, and this year both Republicans and Democrats agree negotiations are already behind schedule.

Eva Tesfaye covers agriculture, food systems and rural issues for KCUR and Harvest Public Media and is a Report For America corps member.

This story was produced in partnership with Harvest Public Media, a collaboration of public media newsrooms in the Midwest. It reports on food systems, agriculture and rural issues.

I report on agriculture, food and water issues for Harvest Public Media and the Mississippi River Basin Ag & Water Desk. I’m based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri. If you have story ideas, you can reach me at etesfaye@kcur.org or on Twitter @EvaRTesfaye.
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