GOP’s SNAP proposal could increase food insecurity for adults aged 50-55

The reality is most SNAP participants who can work for pay, do. But the labor market isn’t the same for older workers.

April 26, 2023 4:00 am

About 3,000 Rhode Islanders aged 50-55 would likely lose SNAP benefits because they are out of work or they are working insufficient hours under the proposal from House Republicans. Other reasons for disqualification could be the state failed to screen them for an exemption they should have qualified for, or they were unable to navigate the verification system to prove they are working. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

House Speaker McCarthy’s debt-limit-and-cuts bill unveiled last week would expand a harsh policy of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that takes food assistance away from many people aged 18-49 who don’t have children at home and can’t secure an exemption. Such individuals can receive SNAP for only three months (in a 36-month period) if they don’t document that they meet a 20-hour-per-week work requirement. Speaker McCarthy’s bill would expand that policy to include people aged 50 through 55. About 1 million such individuals participate in SNAP and meet those criteria in a typical month. (The figure was 900,000 in 2019, the most recent year for which a full year of data are available. A larger number participate in SNAP over the course of a year.) See table below for state figures.

Not everyone newly subject to the requirement would lose benefits under the proposal. Some would live in areas under a waiver from the requirement based on insufficient jobs in their communities. Typically during past non-recessionary periods, about a third of the U.S. population has lived in areas that qualify for waivers in states that seek the waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In addition, many people would be working more than 20 hours a week and would be able to navigate the work verification system, or they would be successfully exempted by their state because of a physical or mental disability or another qualifying exemption.

But a very significant number would likely lose benefits under the proposal because they are out of work or they are working insufficient hours, the state failed to screen them for an exemption they should have qualified for, or they were unable to navigate the verification system to prove they are working.

Labor market complexities

And people aged 50-55 are more likely to face age-based discrimination in the labor market or no longer be able to do the same jobs they held when they were younger because they can no longer meet the physical demands those jobs require. They may have health issues or family caregiving needs that can cause periods of joblessness but that caseworkers may not catch as reason for exemption.

The rationale for these requirements ― that access to basic food assistance should be conditioned on an individual’s documenting hours of work or work activity ― is based on several false assumptions. The first is the notion that people who receive benefits do not work and must be compelled to do so. Most SNAP participants who can work for pay, do.

Claims to the contrary are often rooted in prejudices about people based on race, gender, disability status, and class. A core function of SNAP is to support people during periods of unemployment, and three months (every three years) is not a sufficient period for many people to find new jobs.

Moreover, numerous studies have found that SNAP work requirements like these don’t improve employment or earnings, they just cut people off from the food assistance they need to buy groceries.

The McCarthy bill also restricts states’ ability to maintain eligibility for a limited number of individuals who have used their three months of benefits. Recognizing the harshness of the time limit and its inability to adjust for unexpected or unique circumstances, Congress allowed states to exempt a small percentage (about 12 percent) of people subject to the time limit. States can use these discretionary exemptions in cases when, for example, someone faces a sudden hardship like car trouble or has recently been released from prison or treatment for substance use disorder. States are issued these exemptions each year based on their caseload, and those that aren’t used can be rolled over to subsequent years.

The McCarthy bill would eliminate the ability to carry over unused exemptions. This would further hamstring a state’s ability to respond to individuals’ specific needs, or to unique labor market challenges such as a manufacturing plant closure.

SNAP recipients in each state aged 50-55 whose SNAP benefits could be at risk under Speaker McCarthy’s proposal

Figures are for an average month in fiscal year 2019. They include individuals who do not receive disability benefits and have no children in the SNAP household. Not all of these individuals would lose SNAP. Some could document that they qualify for exemptions or are working 20 hours or more per week. Others could live in areas with waivers based on insufficient jobs.

Note: Figures assume policy included in the Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023, released by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy on April 19, 2023, We have not included estimates for the provision that limits state flexibility on individual exemptions.

Source: CBPP analysis of SNAP Household Characteristics data for Fiscal Year 2019



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Dottie Rosenbaum
Dottie Rosenbaum

Dottie Rosenbaum is the senior fellow and director of Federal SNAP Policy on the Food Assistance team at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. She lends her deep and expansive knowledge of SNAP and other assistance programs to the development and implementation of the team’s federal agenda. She works closely with other Center teams, federal and state agency partners, and national and state advocacy partners on SNAP policy development, strategy, and technical assistance. She also helps with their work that involves the coordination of SNAP and other state-administered health and income security programs, such as Medicaid, TANF, and child care, including the new multi-year, multi-state Safety Net Innovation Lab Project.