Rolling out the SNAP Work Requirements in Michigan: The Washtenaw County Experience
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By Lesli Hoey and Markell Miller
As employment rates rise, many states across the country have been reinstating a work requirement to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – otherwise known as “food stamps” or EBT). A work requirement was initially added to SNAP in 1996 as part of the federal Welfare Reform Act. Seniors, households with children, and individuals with disabilities are not subject to the work requirement, but able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) are required to work 80 hours a month in order to maintain eligibility for benefits. If someone is not working (or in an approved employment and training program or volunteering) they are eligible for 3 months of SNAP (in 3 years) before being time-limited and cut off from the program. States are able to apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a waiver to remove the work requirement during times of high unemployment for their entire state or by county/region.
In January 2017, the State of Michigan was required to roll out work requirements in the four counties with low unemployment and made plans to phase in the policy statewide by October 2018 (see map and figure). This policy brief highlights the findings from a study carried out between January 2017 and April 2018 to understand the impact of reinstating the work requirement and corresponding time limit in Washtenaw County. The Department of Health and Human Services reported that 3,346 people were subject to the work requirements in Washtenaw County. Although 68 percent of these individuals were initially considered exempt from the work requirements in May 2017, how long their exemption lasted is unclear.
We sought to understand what happened to individuals who were subject to the time limit, and the impact on organizations providing hunger relief or other essential services. While the work requirement is here to stay in Washtenaw County, community partners felt that by better understanding the impact of the policy change they could make improvements to services provided, outreach strategies, and public/private partnerships. Additionally, the research team and the University of Michigan Poverty Solutions initiative, which funded the research, felt that findings could help inform social safety net programs and policies at the state and federal level.
- 1 in 6 service provider organizations, out of 101, saw an increase in clients who recently lost SNAP benefits.
- 8 out of 15 organizations that saw an increase in clients who lost SNAP also saw more requests to volunteer, possibly as people tried to meet SNAP work requirements.
- 4 out of 15 organizations noted that food ran out more quickly.
- 3 out of 15 organizations raised funds or managed funds differently to address food needs.
- 6 of 13 people who recently lost their SNAP benefits did not know they could volunteer to maintain eligibility for SNAP benefits.
- Promote key agencies: Materials explaining the complex policy change should be adjusted for specific audiences. Agencies that specialize in certain cases (and that offer wraparound services) could also be promoted.
- Simplify applications: MI Bridges and universal case management are steps DHHS is taking to simplify the application process, but for straightforward cases (e.g., seniors, disabled people with fixed incomes, etc.) applications could be even simpler.
- Maintain waiver option: Considering that even Washtenaw County institutions saw a noticeable impact on their operations – in a county that likely has more poverty alleviation support services than others – maintaining the state option to apply for waivers will be critical for high need areas that have low employment rates.
- Support struggling nonprofits: State-funded grants could support struggling nonprofits who help SNAP run and who step in when food insecure individuals need support with many other non-food basic needs.
- Consider the cost-benefit of applying time limits: As other research has found, most individuals who go on and off SNAP attempt to find work even when time limits are not in effect, suggesting that the time limit may not be necessary to encourage work. The management of time limit requirements, therefore, may be drawing human and financial resources away from other vital poverty alleviation services.