Lawmakers Can Prevent Thousands of Washingtonians from Losing Food Assistance

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Lawmakers Can Prevent Thousands of Washingtonians from Losing Food Assistance

By - April 4, 2016

*Corrected version, April 5, 2016

Many Washingtonians who struggled during the recession are now on more stable footing thanks to the economic recovery, but there are still many people in our state who are facing barriers to employment and unable to make ends meet. And as of this month, thousands of those Washingtonians, including many veterans and homeless people, are losing their access to the Supplemental Assistance Program (SNAP), a critical tool to help them put food on the table.

Strict time limits are being reinstated for SNAP – or Basic Food in Washington state – for non-disabled, childless adults who are unable to find full-time employment. This will result in some of our most vulnerable populations throughout the state facing an increase in hunger and hardship.

It’s not too late for lawmakers to rethink the decision to allow these time limits to be reinstated. 

The 1996 federal welfare reform law originally imposed time limits on individuals who are not working or participating in a 20-hour per week work training program. Those individuals could only receive SNAP for three months out of any three years. However, during the economic recession, states like Washington rightly chose to waive this rule in areas of high unemployment. Unfortunately, states have begun to re-impose the time limit as the economy improves. In Washington state, approximately 15,000 childless adults who have previously qualified for SNAP who are living in King, Snohomish, and parts of Pierce County are no longer receiving food assistance as of this month.

A new report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities sheds more light on who is impacted by these cuts: 

  • Those facing cuts to food assistance are some of the poorest in the state, including those who are homeless, veterans, and part-time workers. Impacted individuals have extremely low incomes – an average of $2,000 per year for a single person in 2015. Many live in rural areas where poverty can be especially high and jobs are few and far between. In addition, the number of underemployed workers (i.e. those who work fewer hours than they wish, or in jobs for which they are overqualified or underpaid) among communities of color remains especially high, further evidence that our economic recovery is not being felt equally for all Washingtonians (see graphic).
  • Many of those impacted do not qualify for any other forms of assistance to help them get enough to eat or make ends meet. The reinstatement of the three-month time limit is especially detrimental to this population as there are no other benefits available to most unemployed workers without children.
  • Many face significant barriers to employment, including limited education and skills, or are caring for elderly, sick, or disabled relatives. This impacts their ability to find work. And those people who do find work often struggle to meet the 20-hour requirement.

Although the overall unemployment rate is falling in Washington state, other labor market data indicate that many people who want to work still cannot find jobs, while others who want to work full-time can find only part-time employment (see graphic). In addition, access to employment programs is limited in most states. This means that a number of individuals will lose SNAP regardless of how hard they are looking for work or how much they want to attend a job training program. Many of those impacted are already working, but may not be able to find the hours needed to meet the requirement. 

[Click on graphic to enlarge it.]


Cutting off this basic assistance to keep food on the table for the poorest Washingtonians will not mean that these people will be better able to find employment or more hours of work. It will simply mean that people who are already having a hard time making ends meet will now have to deal with increased hunger on top of everything else. 

While congressional action to reverse or limit this draconian rule seems unlikely, states can take steps to limit its impact. In Washington state, lawmakers and advocates have taken some laudable steps to do so: They’re extending the waiver in areas still struggling with high unemployment, increasing access to job training programs, and examining rules and exemptions to ensure that individuals are not arbitrarily cut off. Nevertheless, 15,000 Washingtonians could still face even more hardship as a result of these limits. And more needs to be done. 

To learn more about the SNAP time limits and their impacts on communities, read this new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

*The previous version of this post did not mention the steps that Washington is taking to limit the impact of these federal SNAP time limits. The post has been updated to provide more detailed information about some of the protections in place for people facing losses to food assistance. Thank you to Christina Wong, Public Policy Manager with Northwest Harvest, for contributing to this post.