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Since at least 2012 congressional Republicans have been seeking ways to strengthen work requirements in the SNAP (Food Stamp) program as a means both for reducing the size and cost of the program and for reinforcing the moral value of work. Most of these proposals have built on an existing requirement that limits access to SNAP benefits for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) who are not working at least half-time. Implicit in this requirement are assumptions about the inherent employability of able-bodied adults and the availability of a sufficient number of suitable jobs into which they can be hired. In fact, neither of these assumptions is accurate, and the ABAWD rule currently results in the denial of food assistance to hundreds of thousands of genuinely needy persons. Nonetheless, current proposals seek to expand and strengthen the ABAWD rule in ways that dramatically increase its exclusionary effects. A work requirement in a safety net program such as SNAP is a legitimate means for targeting aid to the impoverished persons who are the program’s intended beneficiaries. However, the ABAWD rule is a flawed instrument for accomplishing this purpose because its application to all able-bodied adults without children results in denial of food assistance to persons who are unable to work as well as those whose unemployment is voluntary. Proposed congressional “reforms” would only magnify this flaw by extending the reach of the ABAWD rule to an even broader population and removing or limiting what little flexibility the rule currently incorporates. Rather than compounding the errors of the past, Congress should rethink its approach to work in the SNAP program and develop work rules that effectively test participants’ willingness to work without penalizing their inability to do so.

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