Sarah Ormbrek’s life used to be a lot more uncertain. She didn’t always have a job. She didn’t always have transportation. And she didn’t always have a home for herself and her son. But thanks to the largest anti-hunger program in the country, she could generally rely on having food. During the time of her life when money wasn’t always a constant, “SNAP,” she says, “I could always depend on.”
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, works that way by design, with the intention that low-income people should be able to count on the program whenever they need it. Unlike other social service programs with long waiting lists, SNAP is available to anyone who is eligible. As such, it helps reduce hunger for over 40 million Americans by supplementing their grocery bills each month.
Homeless in Wyoming in the early 2000s, Ormbrek was able to get housing through the Section 8 program, alongside her SNAP benefits and Medicaid for her and her son. Housing, food, and medical stability, as well as child care assistance, enabled her to go to school and get her nursing license.
But then she had to leave Wyoming to escape an abusive situation. She moved to Ohio in 2004—“and I had to start all over,” says Ormbrek. “I ended up back on SNAP.”
As a single mother, Ormbrek had to work a nontraditional schedule. She says, “People think, ‘you have a job, everything is good,’” but that wasn’t always the case. She worked nights and weekends, but “that meant, [I] didn’t have [access to] traditional daycare, so I had to rely on babysitters. If they bailed and I missed work, or if my son got sick and I missed work, I was penalized. If I got sick and I missed work, I was penalized.” She went from “beat-up car to beat-up car,” her inadequate transportation sometimes meaning she wasn’t able to get to work at all.
The instability of her working life, with variable hours and no sick leave or other benefits, led Ormbrek to cycle through jobs—accessing SNAP when she was between jobs to help feed her family.
A new report by Brynne Keith-Jennings and Raheem Chaudhry from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) suggests that Ormbrek’s SNAP experience isn’t uncommon. Instead of merely looking at the work of SNAP recipients at a given point in time, the analysis from CBPP looks at data across a multi-year period, showing that those who aren’t working are often only temporarily jobless and just between jobs—a testament to the low-wage and volatile jobs that most low-income people work. These workers then access SNAP to help keep food in their households.
While nearly two-thirds of SNAP participants are children, elderly, or people with disabilities, the report looks at non-elderly, non-disabled adult program participants who received SNAP in a specific month in 2012, and then looks at their job history the year before and the year after to better gauge their working habits. It also looks at participants who received SNAP at any time during a three-and-a-half-year period between mid-2009 and mid-2013.
The authors found that almost three-quarters of adults who participated in SNAP in a given month worked either that month or worked in the year before or the year after. More than half worked during that month. And, in what suggests that household members share work responsibilities and caregiving, the share of work rates rose when measured by household: 81 percent of households, and 87 percent of households with children, worked within a year of receiving SNAP.
Those adults who received SNAP at all during the three-and-a-half-year period tended to work most months of the period—but they were more likely to access SNAP when they were out of work, and needed help affording food. On average, they participated in SNAP in 44 percent of the months that they were working, and 62 percent of the months that they were not.
According to report coauthor and senior research analyst Keith-Jennings, this shows that “People are working, but they do go in and out of work … when they’re out of work, that’s when they turn to SNAP. It tells us something about the nature of low-wage jobs.” In other words, the problem is not that SNAP recipients aren’t working. The problem is the very structure of the work that they’re in.
Many people on SNAP, a previous CBPP report found, are in jobs which pay little and offer few if any benefits. Such jobs tend to be characterized by volatile schedules that may change from week to week, and workers have to build their lives, including child care and health needs, around those inconsistent schedules. The jobs that SNAP recipients are most likely to have are concentrated in sectors like education and health services (for example, home health care aides and child-care workers), retail work, and hospitality (like housekeeping or food service). In fact, 12 percent of SNAP recipients work in the restaurant and food service industry, the largest share of SNAP recipients in any one industry. And many of these low-wage and schedule-volatile jobs—including alternative work arrangements where workers are in traditional jobs but may be temporarily contracted by staffing agencies and offered few benefits—are only expected to grow as a share of the overall job market.
The findings of the report—the reality of SNAP receipt—go against a common narrative that poor people use SNAP for long periods of time in lieu of working. Most people are only on SNAP for short stints, and they may cycle on and off SNAP due to job instability. Others may be on SNAP for longer periods while they work low-paying jobs, because the food assistance subsidizes their low pay. They, too, may cycle in and out of work. Of the small group that did not work within a year from receiving SNAP in the given month, many cited caretaking responsibilities or health concerns (some likely suffer from undiagnosed physical or mental ailments).
Regardless of how long adults received SNAP, they tended to work most of the months they received benefits. According to Keith-Jennings, the paper suggests that, “You can get a job and work really hard and still need SNAP to fill in those gaps.”
Recently, the Trump administration has signaled that it may want to diminish SNAP’s capacity to be a safety net. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue has said that the program is a “lifestyle” for some recipients and that the department “want[s] to help them transition from government programs, back to work, and into lives of independence.” The farm bill, which authorizes SNAP funding, is up for renewal this year. Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee are committed to drastically changing the program, expanding work requirements and further limiting eligibility through such requirements as harsh asset tests. (Asset tests only allow a family to have a certain amount of assets, like money in the bank, if they are to access SNAP; states have historically had the discretion to change or eliminate such tests.) House Democrats on the committee have refused to negotiate on such a bill, and the committee’s chair, House Republican Mike Conaway of Texas, has said that he will move forward without them. (For his part, Republican Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas and chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee said that because Republicans only hold the Senate majority by one vote, the Senate’s bill would not include massive SNAP changes.)
Budget Director Mick Mulvaney echoed House Republicans’ thinking last year, when he said, “If you are on food stamps and you are able-bodied, we need you to go to work … there is a dignity to work.”
But putting SNAP recipients “back to work” and lecturing them about “dignity” doesn’t fit with the findings of the CBPP study. Its analysis not only points to a misunderstanding of SNAP participation and work, but it also suggests a fundamental disconnect between the reality of poverty and the concept of work requirements.
In fact, SNAP already has general work requirements in place for many recipients. Most adults are required to register for work and take a job if offered. In addition, nondisabled adults without children are limited to receiving benefits for no more than three months in a three-year period if they aren’t working at least half-time. (The Trump administration wants to make this requirement more onerous.)
Keith-Jennings points out that studies on work requirements in other programs show that such requirements are likely ineffective at shifting people into work over the long term. Instead, what may be a more effective way to assist people with finding work is to offer extensive, voluntary job training programs. “To the extent that you can make opportunities available for people who are ready and able to take those opportunities, that’s great,” she says. But such expansive programs are extremely costly, she adds, and as a result could only be adequately provided to a limited number of people. Plus, as the report details, SNAP already provides an incentive to work: Unlike a lot of other programs, SNAP benefits fall more slowly as earnings rise.
When Ormbrek was living in Wyoming, she wasn’t required to work to receive assistance. She made a conscious decision not to apply for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (cash assistance) because of the harsh work requirement. Instead, without a work requirement, “I was able to do what I needed to do until I could get to a better place,” she says. She took care of her son, babysat to supplement her food, housing, and medical assistance, and then got her nursing license. She explains that sometimes people don’t access benefit programs at all because of work requirements, “because what they have to do to get [the benefits] is too much.”
Ormbrek eventually left nursing, and is now the Agency Relations Director at the Shared Harvest Food Bank in Fairfield, Ohio. Part of her job requires working with different pantries and soup kitchens in the area. At “some of those pantries,” she says, “I was once in that line. I was getting food from there.”
In many ways, it’s a happy-ending story. “It’s full circle,” Ormbrek says. “I get to give back to the same places that helped me.” And, at Shared Harvest, Ormbrek is salaried, and has paid sick leave and vacation time. Shared Harvest also offers health insurance to their employees—and covers the entire cost.
But Ormbrek’s story is not the norm: Most people who cycle on and off SNAP will probably continue to struggle in low-wage, limited-benefit jobs.
The CBPP report suggests that if policymakers truly want fewer people on SNAP, that doesn’t mean reforming the program so that fewer low-income people are on it, but strengthening work—and income supports—so that there are fewer low-income workers who need SNAP.
Keith-Jennings says that one way to bolster low-wage work is to strengthen and ensure access to the “suite of policies” that help low-wage workers: stable housing, access to childcare, and the Earned Income Tax Credit.
More opportunities to strengthen work include empowering unions to better fight for workers, and requiring that employers provide sick leave, paid leave, and a living wage.
There are other ideas to be explored as well. As Mark Paul, William Darity Jr., and Darrick Hamilton previously discussed in the Prospect, a federal job guarantee would give a job to any person that wanted one. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York recently came out in support of such a proposal, as The Nation recently reported, further pushing the idea toward the mainstream. While a job guarantee still would likely not be enough to eradicate poverty, a job guarantee—or at least a commitment to full employment—could help eliminate some of the job instability that so many low-income people face.
According to Ormbrek, as someone who used to receive SNAP and who now works with a food bank, “When people really need help, [SNAP] is there. … When you start doing structural changes—block granting, ‘Harvest Boxes,’ eliminating or cutting funds—SNAP loses that ability to respond during situations where it is needed.”