After passing a massive tax break for big corporations and the wealthy few last year, the Administration and Republican leaders on the Hill have now set their sights on cutting food assistance for struggling women and families. The Administration’s FY 2019 budget proposal, a recent proposal from the Department of Agriculture, a new executive order signed by the president this week—and, it is anticipated, the House version of the “Farm Bill” that is expected to be released any day now—all seek to expand work requirements for basic food assistance. These proposals will not encourage work, but instead will take food away from unemployed and underemployed women at a time when they are most vulnerable.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is extremely important to women’s economic security, health, and well-being. SNAP plays a critical role in reducing hunger, food insecurity, and poverty for millions of women and families. If counted in the official poverty measure, SNAP would have lifted the incomes of more than 2.7 million people above the poverty line in 2016, including more than 854,000 women between the ages of 18 and 64. In Fiscal Year (FY) 2016, SNAP served more than 44.2 million people in nearly 21.8 million households on average each month.
Women make up over half (63 percent) of adult SNAP recipients overall. SNAP serves a diverse group of women, including elderly women and women with disabilities. White women make up 24 percent of nonelderly adult recipients, while 34 percent of nonelderly adult recipients are women of color. Moreover, 34 percent of bisexual women, 32 percent of lesbians, and 24 percent of straight women between 18 and 44 report participating in SNAP.
Under current policy, adults aged 18 to 49 who are not caregivers and who do not have a documented medical condition—termed Able Bodied Adults without Dependents, or ABAWDs—are required to work or participate in a work training program for 20 hours per week in order to receive SNAP. Unemployed and underemployed adults who do not meet this threshold cannot receive SNAP benefits for more than three months in a 36-month period. In 2016, 3.8 million people qualified as ABAWDs, nearly half of whom were female.
As an initial matter, these time limits can only be called draconian—and don’t match up with women’s experience of long-term unemployment. Among all unemployed women aged 20 to 64 years old, more than one in five (21.7 percent) have been searching for a job for six months or more. Many unemployed or underemployed adults subject to SNAP’s work requirements face considerable barriers to employment, including low educational attainment; they may lose their SNAP benefits due to the time limit despite their willingness to work, in part because most states do not help them find work or training opportunities.
The majority of adult SNAP recipients who can work, do work. But low-paying and low-quality jobs are often the only ones available to low-income individuals, meaning many workers need SNAP to help them cover basic needs. And the nature of these jobs can make it highly challenging for those who hold them to consistently meet SNAP’s 20-hour weekly work requirements—especially for women. Women of virtually all races and ethnicities are overrepresented in low-wage jobs relative to their representation in the overall workforce. Of the more than 26 million people working in jobs that typically pay less than $11 per hour, nearly six in ten are women—disproportionately Black women and Latinas. And in the lowest-wage occupations that typically pay less than $10 per hour, women make up almost 70 percent of the workforce.
Many low-wage jobs that are primarily held by women—such as cashiers, maids and housekeepers, and restaurant servers—have work schedules that are often unpredictable, unstable, and inflexible. Many offer only part-time work, despite many workers’ need and desire for full-time hours. Furthermore, women in low-wage jobs are especially vulnerable to discrimination and harassment at work, which can result in lost hours or voluntary or involuntary job loss. All of these factors can make it difficult for low-income women to satisfy SNAP’s 20-hour per week work requirement and makes women struggling with underemployment doubly vulnerable: if their employer schedules them for fewer hours, their wages decrease, and they are at risk of losing benefits.
The bottom line is that SNAP’s time limits for unemployed and underemployed workers already harm low-income women, as well as children living in poverty, who often depend on pooled resources (including SNAP benefits) from extended family members who do not claim them as dependents. Women with disabilities may also face significant challenges in finding and keeping a job so that they can meet SNAP’s work requirements.
Under current law, however, there is a safety valve of sorts: states have the flexibility to waive SNAP’s strict work requirements in areas within the state that have experienced elevated unemployment. These waivers allow states to be immediately responsive and to assist workers and families during larger economic downturns, like those that arose during the recession. Eliminating or restricting states’ current ability to waive these time limits—as the Administration has proposed—would cause further harm; when several states that had previously employed waivers reinstated time limits for ABAWDs in 2016, at least 500,000 individuals lost access to SNAP. And expanding the work requirements—for example, to include older adults (as the Administration’s budget proposal would do)—would likewise harm even more economically vulnerable women. For example, older women are more likely to have incomes below the poverty line than men, and face higher rates of long-term unemployment.
Cutting off unemployed and underemployed women’s access to SNAP does not address any of the many barriers that prevent them from finding and keeping a quality job; it just adds hunger to the list of those barriers. If the Administration and Republicans in Congress really wanted to help women attain economic self-sufficiency, they would invest in education and training programs and fully fund the nation’s workforce development system—but they’ve proposed cutting funding for those programs and services as well. We see their proposals for what they are—punitive and ineffective work requirements intended to cut off access to basic assistance that helps women create better futures for themselves and their families—and we’ll be there to resist them, every step of the way.