Changes to SNAP should reflect the unique needs of young adults

Federal officials are currently considering legislative and regulatory changes to a federal food assistance program (SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) that would further restrict eligibility for “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents.” Given that the transition from youth to adulthood is challenging under the best of circumstances—after all, the brain is still under development—it is concerning that the unique needs of young adults have been largely left out of these discussions.

Because many young adults who meet the income requirements for SNAP—including youth aging out of foster care, young adults experiencing homelessness, low-income college students, and young adults who were formerly incarcerated—also face a number of other challenges, any policy changes that could reduce their access to food assistance should be based firmly in the evidence of what works for this age group.

Under current food assistance eligibility standards, low-income young adults who do not have a disability and are not parents can’t receive SNAP benefits for more than three months during a three-year period unless they can prove they are working or attending school at least 20 hours per week, or participating in a work training program.

This spring, House lawmakers introduced a reauthorization bill to require all able-bodied adults without dependents to work 20 hours per week, rising to 25 hours in 2026, with no three-month eligibility period or time limit. In exchange, the proposal would increase funding for employment training programs and require states to make training slots available to anyone who qualifies. While the bill was voted down, lawmakers face a fall 2018 deadline—when the statutory authorization for the program expires. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has signaled its interest in new regulations that strengthen work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents.

It’s hard to know exactly how such changes might affect vulnerable populations of youth. Currently, the USDA does not break down its statistics on able-bodied adults without dependents by age, which means that readily available data group together all adults ages 18 to 50. However, if we look at the three pathways to SNAP eligibility (see below) with respect to this population, it becomes clear that young adults are likely to be affected differently than older adults, and therefore should receive special consideration.

Minimum work hours

Young adults under age 25 experience unemployment at a rate that is two to three times higher than for other working-age adults. This suggests that young adults may have more trouble meeting the work requirement than their older counterparts. While the spring reauthorization bill would have required states to make work training slots available to help individuals find work, it’s not clear that these programs will adequately meet the unique needs of young adults.

Minimum school hours

This pathway to SNAP eligibility is somewhat complex because, with some exceptions, most college students who meet the income requirements for SNAP must still meet the current 20-hour work requirement. This is particularly concerning given a recent report from the Hope Lab at the University of Wisconsin, which found that nearly one in three university students had experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days.

Participation in a work training program

There is little evidence about what works in SNAP-linked training programs. While a USDA-funded study of 10 pilot sites across the nation may offer some insights, the study won’t be completed until 2020. Early findings suggest that most training sites have had trouble keeping participants actively engaged in services, and none of the 10 sites report a focus on young adults. Emerging evidence from the field of youth development suggests that apprenticeship programs and positive youth development approaches can enhance the effectiveness of workforce development programs for youth, but more research is needed—especially on how linking program attendance to SNAP eligibility may change program effectiveness. And while consensus may be building, many rigorous evaluations of youth workforce development programs have found mixed results. For example, a recent review that identified several effective programs found that none had consistently positive effects across all three domains of education, employment, or earnings outcomes, and that many short-term improvements were not maintained over time.

Federal officials should seek to better understand what works for youth transitioning into adulthood under challenging circumstances to avoid establishing additional barriers to their success. Pilot-testing of promising approaches and evaluating the effects of current state options on young adults can identify strategies that could be scaled up to improve the prospects for vulnerable young adults.