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Adding work requirements for food stamps doesn't have desired effect, researchers say

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The House votes today on a compromise deal to lift the debt ceiling. And this legislation also includes a key controversial issue - new work requirements for Americans who get food assistance. Republicans say the aim is to put more people to work, but there's not much evidence that these rules do that. NPR's Jennifer Ludden joins us now with more. Hey, Jennifer.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hey, there.

CHANG: OK. So first, what exactly would this legislation change for some people who use food stamps?

LUDDEN: OK. So to start, there are already work requirements for getting food stamps. It's called SNAP - Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Right now, able-bodied adults under 50 with no dependents have to do some kind of work or training for 80 hours a month. The compromise deal would raise that age to 54. Now, it also specifically exempts veterans, people experiencing homelessness and young adults exiting foster care from those work requirements. Now, last night, the Congressional Budget Office estimated all these changes might very slightly raise the overall number of people on SNAP.

CHANG: OK, so the goal of trying to help more people find work - I mean, what do we know about how effective rules like this can be?

LUDDEN: We will see, but a string of studies find existing work requirements really do not make much difference in getting people a job. They have, though, led to more people getting cut off from food aid. I spoke with Sharon Parrott, who heads the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She blames a lot of this on red tape and paperwork to make sure people follow all these rules. She says it's a lot to track, and people can be wrongly cut off. Also, she says, most people who can work do already work. But for many, the very reason they turn to safety net programs is because they're in distress.

SHARON PARROTT: They lost a job, right? And they're between jobs. Or they themselves have a health issue. They're caring for a family member with a health issue. There are all kinds of circumstances that mean that, at a given moment, someone might not be able to work or work a prescribed number of hours.

LUDDEN: And for those who would be subject to these new work requirements - people on SNAP age 50 to 54 - Parrott says a large share of them are in poor health.

CHANG: All right. Well, you mentioned to get food aid, people would have to work 80 hours a month. So - what? - that's 20 hours a week. I mean, what does that look like in a practical sense?

LUDDEN: Well, I spoke with one woman who ended up taking her 2-year-old along for hours and hours so she could get signatures, proving that she was applying for jobs. Whitley Hasty lives in Rochester, N.Y. At the time, she was newly separated and says she couldn't afford even subsidized childcare. SNAP also required that she take classes, like resume writing, which she honestly felt was a waste of time in her case, but she was not allowed to bring her daughter there.

WHITLEY HASTY: There were hours that didn't complete because I couldn't find anyone to watch my children. But my sister would - she would miss work, or somebody would miss work. So, like, someone was losing money while I was there to fulfill these requirements.

LUDDEN: And Hasty did get a job eventually, but not through that program.

CHANG: OK. Well, for Republicans, cutting federal spending is a critical part of the debt ceiling bill. So how much does changing these work requirements actually achieve that aim here?

LUDDEN: Well, not according to the Congressional Budget Office. It calculates that the changes for food stamps here will actually cost an additional $2 billion, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has challenged that. I think a good point to keep in mind is that, even when someone does get a job through these programs, it doesn't mean they are, you know, lifted out of poverty.

Another woman in New York told me she was really grateful for all of the work readiness training that SNAP required. It helped her land a job at a fast-food chain. But even after being there for 5 years, she never made more than about $8 an hour, so she still needed subsidies for food, housing and childcare.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jennifer Ludden. Thank you, Jennifer.

LUDDEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.

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