The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services recently took an important but long overdue step to protect food benefits for low-income Delawareans through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”).
SNAP, more commonly referred to as food benefits or food stamps, is an anti-hunger program that provides monthly benefit grants to low-income individuals and families to purchase groceries. The federal government fully funds SNAP benefits and shares the cost of administering the program with states. As of August 2023, there are 121,269 Delawareans participating in SNAP. Eligibility for food benefits, and a household’s benefit grant amount, depend on a household’s income, certain expenses, and the number of people in the household.
There is a subgroup within the broader SNAP population called “ABAWDs”, which stands for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents. This group is exactly what it sounds like: adults eligible for food benefits who are 18 to 52 years of age, who do not have a disability (mental or physical) that prevents them from being able to work, and who do not have a minor child in their household. For ABAWDs, SNAP food benefits are conditioned on work. Strict time limits on participation are enforced for anyone who does not comply with the work rules. Specifically, ABAWDs must work or participate in a work program for at least 20 hours per week. Those in this group who do not work at least 20 hours per week will get food benefits for only three months in a 36-month period. After that, they get cut off.
The same rules that impose the work requirement and time limits on ABAWDs allow states to ask for a temporary waiver of those rules when unemployment is high. States request a waiver by submitting a written request to the Food and Nutrition Service (“FNS”), the federal agency that runs SNAP. The request must include data to support the need for a waiver. The specific thresholds for the employment conditions that warrant a waiver are found at 7 CFR 273.24(f)(2), but generally require a state to show that either an area has an unemployment rate of over 10% or does not have sufficient jobs, which can be demonstrated in several ways. If FNS approves the request, a state is not required to enforce the work requirement and time limit rules in any geographic area(s) covered by the waiver. Waivers are typically granted for 12 months at a time.
The time limit rules were first implemented as part of the 1996 welfare reform law. There are currently 34 states with time limit waivers. Delaware is surrounded by states with waivers in place, from Virginia and Maryland to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, and New Hampshire. And yet, until this year, Delaware was the only state in the country that had never asked for a waiver of these rules.
We are thrilled that, for the first time in its history, Delaware asked for a time limit waiver. There was data to support a waiver for the entire state of Delaware, because Delaware had an average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average for the 24-month period of July 2021 through June 2023. Delaware’s average unemployment rate during that time was 4.6%, compared to the national average unemployment rate of 3.9%. FNS approved the waiver request, and beginning October 1, 2023, for 12 months, there are no time limits on food benefits for ABAWDs in Delaware. Delaware estimates that there are approximately 7,500 ABAWDs, which means that those individuals are not at risk of losing their food benefits due to employment status.
When we talk about work rules, it is important to center in this conversation the reality that work requirements in public benefits programs are rooted in harmful and often racist stereotypes about the people who participate in these programs. These stereotypes distract from the real, structural barriers that exist in our labor market, such as access to affordable childcare, transportation, health barriers, and discrimination in hiring, among others. Further, research shows that work requirements do not increase employment or economic stability. They do, however, prevent vulnerable people from accessing proper food and nutrition. Research also demonstrates that SNAP eligibility loss due to work requirements falls disproportionately on people of color and those with disabilities.
The waiver is an important tool that Delaware must utilize to prevent low-income individuals from losing food benefits whenever possible. We are thrilled that Delaware has finally joined our neighboring states in pursuing a waiver, and it is our hope that Delaware makes it an ongoing practice to request a waiver whenever supported by the conditions of the labor market.