“Four ways the debt deal could affect who’s eligible for benefits such as SNAP and TANF
The Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, which would raise the debt ceiling for the next two years and cut federal spending, is making its way through the House and Senate. If enacted, it will put an end to months of heated debate and political tension over the country’s economic and fiscal future.
A central issue in the standoff has been nutrition assistance programs for many low-income Americans, with Republicans seeking to insert work requirements that the Biden administration opposed.
The agreement, which must be voted on by Congress in the next few days, ultimately would institute new requirements for families who get benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
“If it passes, this plan would be the first major deficit-reducing budget agreement in almost a dozen years and would signal Washington is serious about making progress in addressing our mounting national debt,” said Maya MacGuineas, president of the conservative-leaning Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.
But in a twist, these changes could actually make these programs more expensive for the government in the long run, because more people would end up qualifying for aid, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. Federal spending for SNAP and TANF is expected to rise by about $2.1 billion in the next 10 years, the analysis found.
Here are four things to know about the requirements in the proposed debt deal.
1. Older Americans on SNAP would face new work requirements
Current rules for SNAP benefits, which used to be called food stamps, require that adults up to age 49 work or participate in a training program for at least 80 hours a month. There are certain exceptions, though, including for people who are pregnant, have mental or physical limitations, or live with children.
If the deal is passed, the work requirements would apply to a new group: adults without dependents between 50 and 52 starting in October, and adults as old as 54 beginning next fall.
The new requirements could put hundreds of thousands of additional adults at risk of losing food assistance, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.
Many older adults work part-time jobs — as crossing guards, store greeters or seasonal workers, for example — with hours that may not add up to 80 per month, said Ty Jones Cox, vice president of food assistance at CBPP.
“When we look at that older group, especially those with no children in the home and who aren’t eligible for other programs … they may be in jobs where they have had to work with their hands and bodies for years,” making it harder to work into their 50s, Jones Cox said. “These individuals may have a hard time finding another job, retraining or engaging in a new opportunity.”
2. Veterans, the homeless and young adults who recently left foster care will be exempt from SNAP work requirements
But the new legislation would also create new exceptions on exactly who is required to work. Veterans, people experiencing homelessness and adults ages 18 to 24 who were previously in foster care will all be newly exempt from the work requirement.
For the first time ever, Americans who are homeless would not need to meet work requirements to qualify for SNAP benefits, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia L. Fudge said on Twitter. This includes people who are unsheltered, living in shelters or temporarily living in someone else’s home, she said.
As a result, the Congressional Budget Office expects that more people — an additional 78,000 per month, on average — will qualify for SNAP benefits between 2025 and 2030, resulting in $1.8 billion in extra spending.
The extra funding and new exemptions will help some families, who have had to make do after pandemic-era boosts to food stamps ended in March. In Centerville, Va., Heather Thomas has been struggling to make ends meet after her family’s SNAP benefits were cut in half a couple of months ago.
Now, though, the provision for veterans may ward off additional cuts for her family.
Thomas’s husband, Andre, an honorably discharged combat veteran, has been struggling to find work since their small computer business failed in 2016. Thomas, 48, has four kids under 13 in the house, as well as two adult children. She said when her youngest, 6-year-old twins, were babies, she had complications from the pregnancy that rendered her permanently disabled and with ongoing health challenges.
“My husband has been trying to find a job, that’s his only goal,” she said earlier this month, when she worried that more stringent work requirements could put her family in an even more dire position. If the deal passes, Thomas’s family could be among those around the country who benefit.
3. States can still waive work requirements, though there are new wrinkles
States, which can waive work requirements in areas with insufficient jobs, would still be able to do so under the new rules. (An earlier Republican proposal had sought to restrict states’ ability to issue waivers.)
However, there could be some changes to how states dole out exemptions. Under current rules, states are allowed to waive work requirements for a limited number of people. Unused exemptions can be carried over indefinitely by states, which can stockpile them for future years.
Under the bill, though, states would receive fewer monthly exemptions and would be able to carry over unused exemptions for only one year.
4. Enhanced work requirements for TANF benefits in most states
TANF, a program that provides temporary cash for families in need, is also facing potential changes, though the actual impact on recipients will vary by state.
States design their own programs but are required to make sure that at least 50 percent of recipients are working. States can effectively reduce that 50 percent threshold based on how much their caseloads have fallen since 2005. For example, if the number of families receiving benefits has fallen by 20 percent since 2005, then only 30 percent of families would be required to meet work standards.
The new proposal overhauls that framework and sets the comparison year to 2015, instead of 2005. This means more states would have to boost their work requirements accordingly. States would have two years to implement the new rules. They can also lower their work participation requirements by contributing more state funding toward TANF benefits.
As a result, the CBO expects that the federal government would end up paying slightly less to states, because some states would not meet the work requirements. Those changes are expected to shave off $5 million in federal spending over the next decade.
Advocates for low-income families with children say the proposed changes could prompt some states to reduce cash aid to families, in part because “the work participation standards are impossible to meet,” according to LaDonna Pavetti, a senior fellow at CBPP.
“For many people who are homeless or face domestic violence or have a mental health issue, states can exempt them from work requirements,” she said. “But for everyone who is exempted, you need another person who is meeting the work requirements, and because benefits are so low in most states, few working families qualify for assistance.”