Work requirements tied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were introduced at the federal level in the 1990s, with the caveat that states could request waivers in times of crisis. During the 2008-09 recession, many states chose to do just that.
In the years since, the opt-out provision has been modified to a county-by-county, city-by-city basis. But in Pennsylvania, the vast majority of eligible counties and municipalities are now excluded from the work requirements for SNAP, also known as food stamps.
Currently, the decision for requesting the federal waivers rests with the state’s Department of Human Services. But with the latest unemployment numbers for Pennsylvania hovering near a healthy 4.8 percent, state Rep. Mike Tobash, R-Schuylkill Haven, has proposed giving oversight of waiver requests to the Legislature. House Bill 1659, which was discussed by the House Health Committee on April 16, would do exactly that.
When waivers are not in effect, Pennsylvania residents who are considered to be able-bodied adults without dependents would be required to either work 20 hours a week, volunteer 24 hours a month, participate in work programs 20 hours a week or be a full-time student in order to maintain benefits.
Tobash told the committee that with Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate continuing to drop, getting more people into the workforce is essential for driving economic growth in the state.
“At a time when in Pennsylvania and nationally we’ve got low unemployment rates, and we’ve got such a pervasive need for a workforce that can help us to grow in the state of Pennsylvania, we believe that it’s really important for us to have able-bodied citizens, all hands on deck, in order to get not only themselves but Pennsylvania out of this cycle of poverty that we find ourselves in,” he said. “We believe it’s time for us to get back to this standard as many other states are doing.”
Tobash cited other states that had seen success in using work requirements to drive down unemployment, reduce the benefit rolls and get people back to work. He said that Kansas had seen a 75 percent decline in SNAP use after implementing work requirements, and that in Maine there had been a multi-million dollar increase in statewide earnings.
Rep. Michael Schlossberg, D-Allentown, said the bill might be seen as the legislature imposing its will on what should be a local matter.
“I am uncomfortable at moments assuming that we can do a better job of knowing a county’s workforce and human services needs than a county,” he said. “So my question then becomes, why are we trying to usurp local control away from the counties?”
Tobash replied that with nearly the whole state now exempt, it was no longer a local concern.
“A number of years ago, there was the ability for states to choose a blanket state waiver for these requirements and that went away,” he said. “But Pennsylvania is quickly moving down that path of exempting every [county] and every municipality within its borders, and again, with the very low unemployment rate that we’ve got right now, having people with the ability to work without dependents is very important.”
One committee member, Rep. Vanessa Lowery Brown, D-Philadelphia, warned that it was important to keep in mind the experiences and difficulties that SNAP recipients face. She talked about her own past difficulties with adhering to the restrictions that come with some public benefits and worried that the bill would be needlessly leaving many people hungry. And to her, the alternative of being able to volunteer if work was not available was hardly a point in the bill’s favor.
“So we’re talking about people who are just receiving SNAP benefits, that’s food stamp assistance to eat every month,” she said. “How are they able to afford to travel to their assignment? And if it’s a volunteer capacity, they’re not getting paid, so they’re actually going in, giving up some time just so they can eat their food for the month, and they’re not getting allocated any money to do so.”
But to Rep. Brad Roae, R-Meadville, volunteering holds a host of benefits.
“Every volunteer fire department, every food pantry, every library, there’s many many different nonprofit agencies that need volunteer workers,” he said. “And doing that volunteer service, you build job skills, you make connections, you network, it leads to people getting jobs.”
The Health Committee ultimately voted in favor of the legislation, 16-8, advancing it to the full House for consideration.