Skip Navigation

Research & Commentary: Work Requirements Are a Necessary Component of Any SNAP Reform Plan

June 6, 2016

SNAP has become one of the fastest growing welfare programs provided by the U.S. government.

social security cards

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), previously known as the Food Stamp program, has become one of the fastest growing welfare programs provided by the U.S. government. Ordinarily, low-income, able-bodied adults without children are limited to receiving food stamps for only three months in a three-year period, unless they fulfill work requirements, which entail employment or participation in a training or “workfare” program for at least 20 hours a week.  

In 2012, the Obama administration issued a new policy announcing it would provide waivers exempting states from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) work requirements established in the 1996 welfare reform law. Despite this provision, Rasmussen Reports found 80 percent of Americans agree with the statement “work is the best solution for poverty.” In the Heartland Institute’s 2015 Welfare Reform Report Card, the authors argue, “Work improves family well-being economically, by providing a stable source of income and the opportunity to acquire assets, as well as socially and culturally.”

One of the biggest problems with SNAP and the reason it grew so quickly during the recent recession is the lack of any requirement that recipients actively seek employment. Before 2009, recipients were required to work or participate in a work training program in order to receive long-term benefits, but many states waived those requirements between 2009 and 2010. As a result, 44 percent of SNAP recipients are neither employed nor actively searching for work.

In an effort to manage the growing costs associated with SNAP, a bill was introduced in Congress that would reform SNAP by implementing stricter work requirements for “able-bodied” adults who don’t have any dependents receiving assistance and by giving these individuals help with employment training and job-search tools needed to help them overcome poverty. The new bill, titled the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act, is modeled on Maine’s successful reforms and the welfare reforms of 1996.

According to a press release from one of the bill’s sponsors, the Welfare Reform and Upward Mobility Act will do the following:

  • Improve reporting of means-tested welfare spending.
  • Create state-run work activation programs to help SNAP recipients find work through vocational education, job training, and job-search assistance.
  • Focus on able-bodied adults without dependents by reinforcing an 80-hour-per-month work-activation program to help SNAP recipients rise out of poverty.
  • Modify TANF to fix existing provisions that penalize marriage, reinforcing the family as a primary way to combat poverty.

Modeling SNAP reform on Maine’s efforts makes sense. In 2014, Maine re-established work and volunteer requirements for adult recipients who are not disabled and have no children. The results were promising. According to Matthew Glans, Heartland’s senior policy analyst, the number of SNAP recipients in Maine shrunk by “more than 9,000, saving approximately $21.6 million a year, according to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. Maine ranked first in the nation in 2014 for its decline in food stamp dependency, according to the USDA’s Federal Nutrition Service.”

The real focus of these programs must be to provide temporary or supplemental assistance while encouraging work and independence. States should have an immediate requirement for recipients to engage in work-related activities to be eligible for TANF and food stamps. States should also reform assistance programs that trap low-income Americans in poverty by disincentivizing work. Welfare reforms ought to focus on encouraging able-bodied recipients who are enrolled in these programs to become more self-sufficient and less dependent on government.

The following articles provide additional information on work requirements for SNAP and TANF programs.


Welfare Reform Report Card: A State-by-State Analysis of Anti-Poverty Performance and Welfare Reform Policies  
In 2015, The Heartland Institute published an updated version of its Welfare Reform Report Card. This report card compiles extensive data on five “inputs” and five “outputs” of state welfare and anti-poverty programs and assigns a final grade to each state for its welfare policies.

Welfare Reform after Ten Years: A State-by-State Analysis
In 2008, The Heartland Institute published Welfare Reform after Ten Years: A State-by-State Analysis, which reports the welfare policy choices of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, and then ranks the states by how aggressively they have implemented effective policies. The study provides policymakers with a roadmap to successful anti-poverty efforts.

Research & Commentary: SNAP Update and the Return of Work Requirements
In this Heartland Institute Research & Commentary, Matthew Glans examines the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and recent proposals to reform food stamp programs by restoring work requirements.

Maine Continues to Lead Nation in Efforts to Fight Abuse of Food Stamps
In this Heartlander article, Matthew Glans discusses Maine’s efforts to fight abuse and waste within its SNAP program and the successes they have had reforming SNAP.

Welfare Rules Database 
The Urban Institute’s Welfare Rules Database provides a “comprehensive, sophisticated resource for comparing cash assistance programs between states” and for researching changes in cash assistance rules between states.

The Work Versus Welfare Tradeoff: 2013
The Cato Institute estimates the value of the full package of welfare benefits available to a typical recipient in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia. The study found welfare benefits outpace the income most recipients can expect to earn from an entry-level job, and the income gap between welfare and work may actually have grown worse in recent years.

More States Enforce Food Stamp Work Requirements
With the U.S. economy emerging from the recession, food stamp work requirements suspended during the downturn will be reinstated in many states, says Jake Grovum notes in Stateline.

Research & Commentary: SNAP Update and the Return of Work Requirements
In this Heartland Institute Research & Commentary, Matthew Glans examines the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and recent proposals to reform food stamp programs by restoring work requirements.

Top 10 Reasons Food Stamps Need to be Reformed
Andrew Montgomery of FreedomWorks examines serious flaws in current food stamp programs: “In recent years, food stamps have grown into a major financial obligation. Enrollment in SNAP has increased dramatically, rising from 26 million in 2007 (one in twelve Americans) to nearly 47 million in 2012 (one in seven Americans). Costs have increased dramatically as well, rising from $35 billion in 2007 to $80 billion in 2012, making it the second most expensive means-tested federal welfare program, behind only Medicaid.”

Food Stamp Dependence in the States
This interactive map from Foundation for Government Accountability shows what percentage of each state’s population is dependent on food stamps and how much it costs the state.

SNAP Rolls Continue to Increase as Program Ensnares Families in Dependency
In this Heartlander article, Jeff Reynolds discusses the increase in food stamp dependency and ways to reform the program.


Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this subject, visit Budget & Tax News at, The Heartland Institute’s website at, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database at

The Heartland Institute can send an expert to your state to testify or brief your caucus; host an event in your state; or send you further information on a topic. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of assistance! If you have any questions or comments, contact Logan Elizabeth Pike, Heartland’s state government relations manager, at or 312/377-4000.