The highly partisan 2018 Farm Bill proposal, which House Republicans released in mid-April, threatens to compound the hardships faced by millions of disadvantaged Americans by substantially increasing hunger and food insecurity for those who rely on food assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The bill’s effects would be especially severe for those with disabilities and for older adults—both of whom disproportionately struggle in the labor market.
During the decade-long recovery from the Great Recession, the job market has gradually improved for most workers. Yet slowly climbing labor force participation and falling unemployment mask significant differences across various groups of Americans. In particular, individuals with disabilities and older adults have faced a decidedly slower recovery. According to recent census data, just 31.6 percent of adults with disabilities ages 25 to 64 participate in the labor force—compared with 81.7 percent of their nondisabled peers—and this group is nearly three times more likely to be unemployed.* Meanwhile, labor market participation among adults ages 50 to 59 is 75.3 percent, nearly 7 percentage points lower than that of people ages 25 to 49. Furthermore, this demographic is disproportionately likely to experience long-term unemployment—that is, unemployment for six months or longer. And since the risk of disability rises precipitously with age, there is considerable overlap between these two populations. As a result, workers in these groups have not been able to reap the benefits of the economic recovery to the same extent as prime-age nondisabled workers.
Despite claims that certain groups—including people with disabilities and older adults—will not lose benefits as a result of the Farm Bill’s provisions, the proposed bill is a recipe for disaster for people who rely on SNAP to afford groceries, particularly people with disabilities and older adults. Most notably, the bill would greatly intensify SNAP’s so-called work requirements, which function as strict time limits on SNAP benefits for millions of unemployed and underemployed workers. In addition, the Farm Bill may also lead to an increase in illnesses linked to malnutrition, as has recently happened in the United Kingdom.
As the nation’s largest food assistance program, SNAP serves as a vital support for people with disabilities, who are disproportionately likely to face material hardship and to have low incomes. Indeed, disability status is a major predictor of whether a household faces food insecurity. Living with a disability often entails substantial extra costs, which may put a significant strain on household budgets and decrease the disposable income available to purchase food, for instance. It can also make it harder to obtain and maintain gainful employment, thus lowering household income and exposing individuals and their families to hunger. SNAP has helped to mitigate the impact of food insecurity on people with disabilities; at least a quarter of SNAP beneficiaries—roughly 11 million individuals—have one or more disabilities, and many more individuals who participate in SNAP experience disabilities that are not officially recognized as such by the program’s rules. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) estimates that 42 percent of adults ages 18 to 59 who participate in SNAP have at least one physical, functional, or work limitation but are not counted among SNAP’s disabled recipients.
SNAP has also proven critical for older adults, whose access to benefits would be compromised under the proposed Farm Bill. For instance, older adults are more likely to require medication, and, when household budgets are tight, they may be forced to choose between their health-related needs, feeding themselves, and maintaining a roof over their heads. In general, food insecurity among older adults is on the rise. A 2014 report found that, among people between the ages of 50 and 59—an age group that is specifically targeted by the stricter requirements of the Farm Bill proposal—about 19 percent experience marginal, low, or very low food security. SNAP is a key tool to help mitigate that hardship. In 2016, an estimated 4 million Americans ages 50 to 59 lived in households that participated in SNAP.**
Harshens already strict time limits
House Republicans’ draft 2018 Farm Bill attempts to harshen already strict time limits that restrict the amount of time during which certain adults can receive SNAP. Under current law, nondisabled people ages 18 to 49 who both lack dependents and do not engage in employment-related activities for at least 20 hours a week can only receive SNAP for a limited period of three months every three years. As a result, when jobs are hard to come by, people may lose vital nutrition assistance. Although, in theory, only so-called able-bodied individuals are subject to these time limits, in practice, many people with disabilities and certain health conditions are often misclassified as able-bodied. For example, the Ohio Association of Foodbanks found that, from December 2013 through February 2015, in 72 Ohio counties, of all people subject to SNAP’s time limits, 30.8 percent had undiagnosed physical and mental health limitations, which often make it more difficult to obtain and maintain employment.
This rule would thus penalize people with disabilities who, while theoretically exempt from the time limits, are still subject to them in practice. SNAP determines one’s disability status primarily based on whether that individual receives payments from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). However, it is notoriously difficult to qualify for these programs: Fewer than 4 in 10 SSDI applicants are approved, even after multiple levels of appeal; and the waitlists for these programs number in the millions, with thousands of applicants dying before receiving benefits. SNAP not only serves many people with disabilities that are officially recognized by the program but also people with impairments—many of them severe—that are not officially recognized as disabilities under the program’s standards. Indeed, 2017 analysis from the CBPP found that approximately 28 percent of adults who received SNAP within the past year had at least one physical, functional, and/or work limitation or received SSI or SSDI. Of that group, 42 percent received neither SSI nor SSDI and thus were likely identified as able-bodied; and those ages 18 to 49 were subject to SNAP’s time limits.
The proposed legislation seeks to subject even more individuals to those rules, expanding them to older adults ages 50 to 59 as well as adults caring for children ages 6 and older. Since the incidence of disability rises with age, older adults are more likely to have disabilities in general, as well as physical impairments or limitations that make it difficult to work in the types of low-paying jobs that are often most readily available to SNAP beneficiaries, many of which involve physical labor. By 2026, the proposed bill’s new rules would also require these individuals to work not 20 but 25 hours per week in order to avoid a lockout period that would cut off their SNAP eligibility for an entire year. Any individuals who are twice unable to meet the requirements under the proposed Farm Bill could face a lockout period of three full years. Among SNAP households with a 50- to 59-year-old member, in 2016, about 2.5 million of these individuals were considered nondisabled under SNAP rules and had no young children of their own residing with them. Therefore, they would likely be subject to the Farm Bill’s harshened time limits.
Both older adults and people with disabilities already face significant labor market disadvantages that make it difficult for them to find suitable jobs. For people over age 50, age discrimination poses significant workforce obstacles; not only are older job seekers less likely to be hired, they are also more likely to be laid off or even fired as a result of age discrimination and to experience long-term unemployment. Indeed, among older adults who are unemployed, nearly one-third have been searching for work for six months or longer, compared with less than a quarter of younger workers ages 25 to 54. Furthermore, older adults are also more likely to serve as informal caregivers for family members and loved ones, which leaves them less time to perform substantial work in the formal labor market.
For people with disabilities, barriers to work include a lack of long-term services and supports; inadequate workplace accommodations; inaccessible and prohibitively expensive transportation; stubbornly low wages; and outright discrimination. In large part because of these barriers, the 2017 unemployment rate for workers with disabilities was 10.8 percent, compared with 3.6 percent for workers without disabilities. Furthermore, among people with disabilities who are employed, many are only able to work part time; 31.2 percent of disabled workers are employed part-time, compared with 16.9 percent of nondisabled workers. These part-time positions are less likely than full-time jobs to offer the number of hours needed to maintain SNAP benefits under the 2018 Farm Bill. Furthermore, people who have caregiving responsibilities for children and for adults with disabilities or temporary illnesses may also struggle to maintain jobs or sufficient hours of work.
Rather than help older adults and people with disabilities to overcome their labor market disadvantages, the House Farm Bill would dramatically underfund the employment and training (E&T) programs that it claims will “guarantee access to an E&T slot to anyone who wants one.” The additional $1 billion per year that the Farm Bill would commit to these E&T programs translates to only about $300 per person annually. By comparison, the CBPP estimates that effective services to promote stable employment cost between $7,500 and $14,000 per participant. Therefore, the proposed Farm Bill funding is likely to fall far short of what is needed to adequately assist individuals who are subject to work requirements.
Eliminates “heat and eat” for most families
The draft Farm Bill threatens to cut benefits for certain SNAP households that pay out-of-pocket utility expenses—many of which have a member with a disability. In order to simplify the calculation of adjusted household income, which is used to determine the value of SNAP benefits that households receive, for decades, states have been able to assign the standard utility allowance (SUA) to households that participate in the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This modestly raises benefits for these households. It also means that the state does not need to review detailed monthly energy bills. However, the 2018 Farm Bill does away with this administrative simplification for all LIHEAP households except those with seniors. The many affected LIHEAP households—up to 42 percent of which have a disabled member—would be faced with additional paperwork in order to continue to receive the SUA. For these households, failure to provide this documentation would lead to a decrease in SNAP benefits.
Creates bureaucratic hurdles that are especially burdensome for people with disabilities
The proposed Farm Bill would force SNAP recipients to fill out an onslaught of paperwork in order to track and report their work-related activity from month to month. Currently, most states request paperwork along these lines every six months. For individuals who fail to properly submit this monthly documentation, sanctions under the draft Farm Bill are particularly punitive: They may lose SNAP benefits for 12 to 36 months. That is up to three years without food assistance for just two paperwork-related errors, such as failure to document all of one’s hours worked in a given month—which could be in multiple jobs—or a failure to submit the documentation on time.
While this paperwork would be labor-intensive for any participant, it may be especially difficult to navigate for people with certain intellectual and developmental disabilities or mental health conditions. People with disabilities are also at risk for a years-long lockout simply because they did not understand that they were eligible for an exemption; were ineligible for an exemption under SNAP’s very narrow definition of disability; or were unable to provide the necessary documentation—such as physician testimony or medical records—to prove that they qualified for an exemption. This last hurdle is especially problematic for those who lack health insurance or live in one of the 18 states that have not yet expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. Disabled workers are also more likely to be self-employed than nondisabled workers, and documentation of self-employment is particularly burdensome.
If the 2018 House Farm Bill becomes law, it would increase hunger for the more than two million individuals who would lose some or all of their SNAP benefits due to new punitive time limits, the elimination of administrative simplifications, and onerous paperwork requirements. People with disabilities and older adults would be particularly affected. A loss of SNAP benefits not only would increase material deprivation and food insecurity, making it more difficult for these individuals to obtain and maintain work, it may also lead to a rise in illnesses linked to malnutrition. By cutting a program that helps millions of people with disabilities and older adults put food on the table, the Farm Bill is undermining these Americans’ ability to live independently, remain healthy, and meet their most basic needs.
Eliza Schultz is the research associate for the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress. Rachel West is the director of poverty research at the Center.
*Authors’ note: Except where noted, labor market statistics are based on authors’ analysis of the 2017 March Current Population Survey from Sara Flood and others, “Integrated Public Use Microdata Series, Current Population Survey: Version 5.0” (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2017), available at https://doi.org/10.18128/D030.V5.0.
**Authors’ note: Authors’ analysis of the 2017 March Current Population Survey. This is almost certainly an underestimate; survey data substantially undercount participation in programs such as SNAP.