POLITICS
05/23/2018 06:44 am ET Updated May 23, 2018

Work Requirements Are Paperwork Requirements

The GOP poverty agenda would expand the administrative state.
Alex Wong via Getty Images

Complying with a “work requirement” in order to receive federal benefits is about more than just getting a job.

Republicans want more adults who receive benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, often called food stamps, to work 20 hours per week or enroll in a training program in order to keep their benefits. People who do work that much could still lose their benefits if they fail to do the additional work of filing documentation of their time.

The proposal Republicans offered in the U.S. House of Representatives would reduce SNAP enrollment by 1.2 million over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a major critic of the legislation, has said administrative hassle ― rather than an unwillingness to work ― is an important reason work requirements kicked people off a much smaller program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

Food stamps already have work requirements, and they can be a hassle for some of the program’s 40 million beneficiaries. Take Andrew Rhoades of Rockford, Illinois. He’s a 26-year-old with no dependents or disabilities, so he’s exactly the kind of person the government wants to nudge into a job. He’d previously worked in a shipping warehouse, but the position was temporary. Besides, he had plenty of work to do helping take care of his sister’s young children.

Last year, the state government started requiring Rhoades to turn in a record of his job applications every month in order for him to continue receiving $192 per month in food aid. If he didn’t comply, he could temporarily lose benefits for three to six months.

“I had to fill them out on a piece of paper and take them to the employment office,” said Rhoades, adding that he had to get rides to the office from his sister. “It was annoying.”

Roughly 14 percent of SNAP recipients in 2016 were able-bodied adults registered to work or fulfill state-specified job search or training requirements. A narrower group of adults between the ages of 18 and 49, who don’t have minor children and don’t live in an area with high unemployment, must work at least 20 hours a week to receive benefits beyond an initial three-month period.

The House bill would make more adult recipients comply with stricter requirements, including monthly reporting of their work activities. About 8 million people, or 20 percent of recipients, could be affected, according to an analysis from the Urban Institute.

The underlying bill failed in a vote last week, largely because of an unrelated fight over immigration. Republican leaders could bring it back next month.

Most food stamp recipients would be unaffected by the proposal because they live in households with children or a disabled or elderly adult ― which can be barriers to holding a job. States generally ask people with disabilities or dependents just to periodically reaffirm that they’re still poor enough to qualify. Even that can be a hassle.

Dicky Neely, 70, previously received $26 per month in SNAP benefits, which he would let accumulate on his electronic benefits transfer card until he had enough for a substantial grocery run. Neely writes novels, but is mainly retired and gets by on Social Security benefits. Earlier this year, the resident of Corpus Christi, Texas, said his SNAP benefits didn’t show up in his account, even though he thought he had submitted his paperwork. He called the Texas Department of Health and Human Services to find out what happened.

“They said, ‘We got your form, but you didn’t sign it,’” he said. “So they cut me off.”

He said the state told him to reapply for food assistance, but he’s not sure it’s worth the effort. “It does help, but man, I’m just so tired of dealing with those people,” he said.

The bureaucratic hassle explains why fewer than a third of people eligible for minimum benefits bother to apply.

Implementing the new work rules could be a challenge for states, too, since they would have to expand job readiness programs that currently serve only 690,000 people. Even after the federal investment in training increases from $110 million to $1 billion annually, by 2028, states would only be able to provide training to 80 percent of the several million food stamp recipients subject to work requirements, according to the CBO. 

“How is that a bad thing?” Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.), one of the main authors of the work requirement provisions, told HuffPost. “I’ll take one victory, one family at a time.”

Rhoades’ case may have been a victory from the government’s perspective. He is a participant in the type of training program that would be scaled up under the Republican bill.

Last year he said he received a notice from the state that made him think he would lose his benefits if he didn’t get a job. Rhoades lives with his sister, Shannon Joslin, and had been helping feed her kids and get them to school every day, but the state told him his childcare services didn’t count as work.

The state’s letter may have been unclear since Rhoades doesn’t live in a county where the strictest work rules are currently in effect. He got a part-time job anyway at the same shipping warehouse where he’d worked before.

The state reduced his benefits to $80 a month because of that income. He likes the work fine, but he said his sister and her husband had to rearrange their schedules since he was no longer around to babysit as much.

“They made me get a job, and that messed everything up for everybody,” Rhoades said.

Joslin, 31, is a cashier at a gas station and said she works about half as many shifts now that her babysitter is busier.

“I had to reschedule everything,” she said. “I only work two days a week now because of that.”

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