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 (see a description of the methods on page 8 and details about particular figures on page 9). 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.
With early communication to individuals and community partners, more people are prepared for the SNAP work requirement policy change and can update case paperwork to maintain eligibility before benefits are cut off.
In Washtenaw County, DHHS proactively led outreach and education efforts with community partners and individuals subject to the ABAWD requirements. Representatives from the local DHHS office sat on a state committee in Lansing to design strategies and to share lessons learned for rolling out the policy change. This included the design of a survey that was distributed to Washtenaw County residents in late 2016, several months prior to the policy going into effect. The goal of the survey, and subsequent communication on websites and flyers, was to notify ABAWDs of the forthcoming changes, identify individuals that might be affected, and guide them in obtaining an exemption, if eligible.
In collaboration with DHHS, Food Gatherers – a Washtenaw County food bank – also offered trainings to inform community partners of upcoming SNAP policy changes and to identify pathways to help their clients obtain or maintain eligibility. Food Gatherers also worked with the Food Bank Council of Michigan to create materials for food pantries so they could help increase awareness of the new time limit.