Making SNAP Work For Families Leaving Poverty

wmily web pic 6The holiday season is officially here and with it brings an increase in work hours for many low-income employees in the service and retail industries.  An increase in hours should mean more income for families but for too many, more work does not necessarily lead to better outcomes.

“It is hard to feel like you are stepping up. Once you are able to get a job or a raise more is taken from you than you are making, leaving you in a worse position,” said Emily Edwards a member of Witnesses to Hunger. Witnesses to Hunger is a research and advocacy program at the Center for Hunger-Free Communities featuring the voices and photography of women and men who have experienced hunger and poverty first hand.

Emily is working as a home health aid but her hours fluctuate from week to week. With an inconsistent income what Emily needs to make ends meet constantly changes. While she is thrilled to have a job she loves, Emily also fears that she might lose her SNAP benefits due to one busy week that causes her to work additional hours. When this happens, her overall wages do not make up the difference after her SNAP benefit is decreased.

“My fridge is already empty and now I could lose even more of my benefits.  I try to budget my money but you can’t budget $1 and many times that is all I have, even with the job.  I feel like it’s always a struggle and that I can’t move forward,”

Emily is just one of so many who are struggling to meet her family’s needs on a very limited income. Just as she begins to climb the ladder toward self-sufficiency, her benefits will drop off without any time to transition and find more stable ground.

Families working toward self-sufficiency often encounter situations where modest increases in household income (sometimes as little as $1) can trigger significant reductions in or being totally cut off of assistance benefits, like SNAP (formerly food stamps).  This leaves families with a net income decrease, also known as the cliff effect.  The cliff effect means they are often struggling more to make ends meet more than they were before the increase in income, creating the counterintuitive result of families relying once again on assistance benefits, just when they were working to move off of them.

Today, Children’s HealthWatch and the Center for Hunger Free Communities are releasing a policy brief, ‘Making SNAP work for families leaving poverty’,  highlighting the hardships families in Philadelphia face when SNAP benefits are reduced or cut off due to an increase in earnings. We found that compared with young children in families consistently receiving SNAP, young children in families that lost SNAP were more likely to:

  • Have fair or poor oral health
  • Have foregone needed health care due to cost
  • Live with a family member who was forced to forego receiving health care due to costs
  • Live in a household that made a trade-off between paying for other basic living expenses such as food, rent, or housing in order to pay for health care

Philadelphia has the highest deep poverty rate of the ten largest U.S. cities.   According to the Self-Sufficiency Standard for Pennsylvania, a family with one adult and two children needs to earn $57,746 per year in order to make ends meet but almost a quarter of families in Philadelphia make under $15,000 per year. This gap means that working families must turn to SNAP to get by. More than 80% of families with children who participate in SNAP include an adult who has worked in the year prior to or after receiving SNAP, yet those earnings do not alleviate the economic hardship they experience.

Work should always be a positive step for families; key policy changes are necessary to ensure that families do not face setbacks caused by the cliff effect. Strengthening SNAP for working families is crucial for the future of our children.  Many useful changes rely on federal policy, but the work to improve health and economic outcomes for families and children cannot rely solely on changes made by national policy makers. We must call upon decision makers at the state and local level for policy improvements that make sense and support working families.

The Mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, made a commitment to fight poverty in his city when he created the Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, which supports the Shared Prosperity Philadelphia initiative of fighting poverty. Through collective impact, Shared Prosperity Philadelphia seeks to create and implement a comprehensive strategy to address poverty in the city. There are policy solutions within reach. Working families need SNAP and other benefit programs because they do not make enough money in their jobs to make ends meet. Raising the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation, developing career pathways to jobs with family-sustaining wages and benefits, establishing mandatory paid sick leave for all employees, and increasing access to quality, affordable childcare are a few policy solutions that we, along with other advocates in Pennsylvania, know would make a difference in the lives of thousands of families in Philadelphia. These policy changes and others discussed in the brief will improve the lives of families and children and ensure a brighter future for all Philadelphians.