In 2016, unemployed workers without minor children in many states may be at risk of losing their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also known as food stamps) benefits due to the return of the three month time limit for SNAP/food stamp benefits. Individuals receiving UI benefits — and many UI applicants — are supposed to be exempt from this time limit, but it is not clear that all SNAP agencies will correctly identify and exempt such individuals.Therefore, UI advocates may have an important role to play in both encouraging states to identify those who should be exempt and in assisting unemployed workers who are incorrectly denied SNAP benefits.
Since 1996, there has been a time limit on SNAP benefits of just three months during any 36-month period for working age adults without children unless they are working or participating in a qualifying work activity at least 20 hours a week. The time limit applies to recipients who:
- Are 18-49 years of old;
- Are not determined to be medically certified as physically or mentally unfit for employment;
- Are not pregnant;
- Are not raising or residing in a household with minor children;
- Are not otherwise exempt from SNAP work requirements; and
- Are not working or participating in a qualifying activity for at least 20 hours per week.
Because of these rules, people subject to the time limit are sometimes referred to as “able-bodied adults without dependents” or “ABAWDs. Throughout the recent recession, many states qualified for statewide waivers of time limits due to high unemployment. But, in 2016 only a handful of states will still have statewide waivers (most states will qualify for waivers in some portions of the state, although not all states are taking the waivers for which they are eligible). The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) has estimated that nearly 1 million people will be cut off of SNAP in 2016 due to this time limit.
Individuals who are receiving unemployment compensation — and in many cases people who have applied for UI benefits — are exempt from SNAP work requirements, and therefore should not be subject to the SNAP time limits. The regulations include among the list of exemptions:
(v) A person receiving unemployment compensation. A person who has applied for, but is not yet receiving, unemployment compensation is also exempt if that person is complying with work requirements that are part of the Federal-State unemployment compensation application process. If the exemption claimed is questionable, the State agency is responsible for verifying the exemption with the appropriate office of the State employment services agency.
SNAP agencies should know whether recipients are getting UI benefits, as UI is countable income for SNAP, but we do not yet know whether all agencies have built this information into their processes for identifying recipients subject to the time limit. In most cases, SNAP agencies will not know that an individual has applied for UI benefits unless the caseworkers ask. For this purpose, registering for work as a condition of UI receipt is sufficient to count as “complying with work requirements.”
Questions to ask any state about this provision include:
- Is the state requesting all of the time limit waivers for which it is eligible?
- In the computer run to identify people subject to the time limit, are individuals reporting UI income automatically being excluded?
- Can the SNAP agency automatically match data with the UI agency to identify individuals who have applied for UI benefits but not yet been approved?
- In notices that are being sent to recipients regarding the time limits, are they informed that UI receipt and/or application is a basis for exemption, and asked to report if they qualify on this basis?
There are other bases for exemption from the time limit that may be of interest, including for students, those who are “physically or mentally unfit for employment” (which does not require the same level of disability as other programs), those in substance abuse treatment programs, those in workforce programs, and those working on a volunteer or in-kind basis. For more information about the SNAP time limits, see: