SNAP Work Requirements: How Recent Changes Will Affect Individuals Returning Home From Incarceration


In December, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) published final federal regulations tightening work requirements for individuals to receive food assistance benefits under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This rule change applies to those receiving SNAP termed “Able-Bodied adults without dependants,” (ABAWDs) and is expected to cut off benefits for 688,000 people. These changes to work requirement waivers bring the first final rule from the three proposed in this past year to restrict SNAP eligibility, a program that is the nation’s largest nutrition assistance resource for low-income individuals.

Food support plus access to employment and training via SNAP Employment & Training (SNAP E&T) is an important part of reentry for those individuals returning home from incarceration. SNAP assists with safety and security so CEO participants may better focus on connecting with family at home and look for a job, and not be as concerned with basic needs like purchasing food. For those working toward stability and employment, SNAP E&T enables returning citizens to obtain work experience, job training and support services (via SNAP 50/50), like transportation to their first weeks on the job and tools needed for their job.

Tightening work requirements to continue SNAP benefits may mean that justice-involved individuals working to find a permanent job have less support to gain stable employment.

What changed:

  • With this rule, the USDA substantially narrowed the unemployment rate criteria for states to qualify for an ABAWD work requirement waiver. Mainly, the department established a new unemployment rate floor for an area to qualify for a waiver. An area qualifies for a waiver if its average unemployment rate over a recent 24-month period has been 20 percent higher than the national average for the same time period AND now the state’s unemployment rate must be 6 percent or higher in that same two-year period. (Unchanged in the rule - areas with unemployment rates higher than 10 percent qualify.)

  • The USDA restricted states prior leeway on how they can group areas to calculate an unemployment rate and apply for a waiver for that area; they have to use designated labor market areas or the smallest area for which data are available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

  • The USDA limited waivers to one year, and defined data needed and application processes in such a way that the effect will slow how fast states can initiate a waiver in a time of crisis.

How this impacts CEO’s participants:

If an area does not have a waiver, SNAP-receiving ABAWD participants lose their benefits after three months of SNAP if they aren’t meeting the work requirement. In other words, most people leaving prison signing up for SNAP are ABAWDs. If they don’t find work or participate in an employment and training program for 20 hours/week, they lose benefits after three months.

Here at CEO our participants comply with the requirement by working transitional jobs and participating in our program - we’re a SNAP E&T 50/50 provider in many of our sites.

However, participants may not consistently meet the work requirement as they are juggling so much when working to be stable upon returning home.

Practically this rule may change how closely individual SNAP agencies are monitoring work requirements and participation in our program and other employment training. However, many of our sites have already come their waiver from the 2008 recession. Even if sites do have a waiver, the state is still tracking ABAWD information because the work requirement still exists (but penalties are not carried out against participants for noncompliance).

As this rule moves forward, agencies will be looking for more programming slots for ABAWDS. CEO will be reaching out to state and local SNAP administers to ensure that they directly refer justice-involved SNAP ABAWD recipients to CEO as 20 hours each week at CEO helps SNAP participants maintain a crucial tool in food assistance.

More background on ABAWDS:

Able-bodied adults without dependants (ABAWDs) 18-49 years old are generally required by law to work and/or participate in a work program at least 80 hours per month to receive SNAP more than three months in a three-year period. SNAP administrators must determine and verify ABAWD work hours at certification, and start counting the three months if the individual is not meeting work requirements. ABAWDs are required to report whenever their work participation dips below the 20 hours/week required, averaged monthly.

There are two ways that states can exempt people who would otherwise qualify from the ABAWD requirement -

  • WAIVERS - States have the option to request a 3-month time limit waiver in areas of unemployment above 10 percent or those that lack sufficient jobs. Very few areas qualify based on the 10 percent exception. Most areas will be applying based on the new bar - an area with a recent 24-month period where the unemployment rate has been 20 percent higher than the national average for the same time period AND the state’s unemployment rate must be 6 percent or higher in that same two-year period.
  • 12 PERCENT EXEMPTIONS - States can be granted special exemptions equal to 12 percent of the estimated number of ABAWDs in the states, and use those exemptions to temporarily extend eligibility for ABAWDs not meeting the work requirement. For example, states may use their 12 percent waivers for homeless individuals as homelessness is not itself an exemption from work requirements. Until last year states could exempt 15 percent of individuals, but Congress reduced the exemptions to 12 percent last year during SNAP reauthorization.

If waivers are not renewed, states would send notice to ABAWDs that waiver of the time limit is going to expire and how it will impact eligibility. This rule is expected to take effect in April 2020. Fourteen states, joined by New York City and the District of Columbia, filed suit to block the rule in January citing the impact the rule change will have on their citizens and that states are best positioned to evaluate market conditions.