The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—known as CalFresh in California—is designed to reduce hunger by helping low-income individuals and families purchase groceries. Since the 1990s, some low-income adults have faced a work requirement in order to be eligible. The recent debt ceiling agreement adds a program goal related to employment and expands federal work requirements for some older adults relying on SNAP. At the same time, it waives requirements for several other groups. How might these changes affect Californians?
Before the recent rule changes, non-disabled SNAP participants ages 18 to 49 who were not caring for dependents could only receive benefits while un- or underemployed for three months out of every three years. A number of rigorous national studies have shown little or no improvement in employment and earnings as a result of time limits on benefits. For example, a study comparing SNAP participants in their early 50s, who were not subject to these rules, to slightly younger adults who were subject to the rules, found similar employment patterns but higher participation in SNAP among the older group.
PPIC research finds that adults participating in CalFresh tend to be connected to the labor market. Even when work requirements were waived statewide, 79% of working-age adults new to the program had earned income in a three-year period before, during, and after enrollment. However, their employment is often unstable; about half went several months without earnings at least once within that time frame. This finding is consistent with research showing that an increasing share of jobs are both low-wage and precarious, which could make it more difficult for CalFresh recipients to meet work requirements.
Over the next few years, work requirements will phase in for adults ages 50 to 54 who are not disabled or caring for dependents. However, states can apply for work requirement waivers if unemployment rates are high. California currently seeks waivers for all eligible counties—a statewide waiver currently in place is expiring in October 2024.
In addition, the new rules exempt veterans, people experiencing homelessness, and young adults who were in foster care from work requirements through 2030. We estimate that before the pandemic, roughly 200,000 CalFresh participants ages 18 to 49 experienced homelessness in California. Estimates of eligibility for the state’s new Foster Youth Tax Credit and calculations from the California Poverty Measure indicate that the employment exemption could apply to up to 20,000 former foster youth and approximately 60,000 veterans across the state.
When the new rules take effect, state and local decisionmakers will need to consider how best to establish these participants’ exemption status and assist others in meeting new and reintroduced work requirements. Many counties run SNAP Employment and Training programs, but federal funding for these programs is limited. Leveraging this funding as much as possible could help adults participating in CalFresh strengthen their connections to the labor market.