Families with unpredictable work hours are less likely to get the food stamps they need

  • About 1 in 5 families do not sign up for food stamps, even though they're eligible.
  • The study found people with more volatile incomes are less likely to access SNAP.
  • Food stamps are adjusted based on inflation.

Many low-income families aren't getting the food stamps they need because of unpredictable paychecks, according to a new study.

The study from the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank found families with more volatile incomes were less likely to access the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program because they found it harder to prove eligibility with constantly changing work hours – an issue that was amplified during the pandemic.

Families whose incomes fluctuate near the eligibility line are about 40% less likely to access food stamps than those whose incomes remain below the threshold, economists found. 

"SNAP is a good program, but this is clearly a weakness in the program. Definitely one that undermines some of the very households that people would be most interested in trying to help," said Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute who researches SNAP policies. 

CONTEXT: In the U.S., having an unpredictable income is common. During 2020, almost 20% of households experienced a drop in income of 25% or more, according to the study. Seasonal workers and people in the service and hospitality industries are more susceptible to seeing their hours drastically scaled back or having a windfall of work. 

WHY IT MATTERS: SNAP has been credited with being one of the most effective programs at keeping families out of poverty. The benefits are a way to give low-income households a cushion each month for their food budget so they can pay their rent, utility bills and medical expenses.

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Prices are advertised outside of a grocery store along a busy shopping street in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn on June 15, 2022.

What do food stamps do?

About 10% of people in the U.S. are "food insecure," meaning they're not sure where their next meal is coming from, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 2019, 38 million people received SNAP benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Decades ago, food stamps were paper coupons presented to a cashier at a grocery store. Since the early 2000s, SNAP dollars are used through a government-issued debit card called Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT.

The benefits are adjusted annually to account for inflation. Last month, the SNAP dollars families get jumped 12.5%.

How do food stamps work?

When a family's monthly income goes down, such as if one parent loses a job, monthly SNAP dollars increase. But when a worker's paycheck increases, such as from overtime, food stamps are supposed to be reduced.  

SNAP beneficiaries must carefully report increases and decreases in their monthly income – something that becomes much harder when your paycheck varies dramatically from one month to the next, researchers have found.

"Income volatility is really pretty large, so we should expect that and design our policies in a way that can help these families," said Hannah Rubinton, a St. Louis Federal Reserve economist and author of the study.

Inflation has driven up the prices of nearly all goods and services, including necessary items such as groceries. The cost of a gallon of milk is up 25% compared to pre-pandemic prices. According to a report by Moody's Analytics, American families pay $311 more each month, on average, for essential goods compared to one year […]

Beneficiaries can face barriers to access

SNAP beneficiaries can also be afraid of making mistakes on their paperwork, because providing false information about their income can result in staggering fines and lengthy sentences, Rubinton said.

"You might be scared of signing up for it, of doing it wrong," said. “When you look at the form, it’s very threatening. It’s like, ‘if you fill out this information wrong it can be jail time.’”

In Little Rock, Arkansas, the SNAP application and income verification process was so complicated that nonprofit workers launched a call center in 2020 to help people with Department of Human Services paperwork. One staff member said hungry residents can feel more demoralized by how many steps they have to go through just to get food.

“All you’re trying to do is take care of your family or feed yourself, so it’s already hard on your heart and your self-esteem," said Cathy May, 64, director of SNAP programs with Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance. "So it’s almost like you’re begging when you have to go through all the hoops and you keep providing the information, the documentation, and they keep asking for more. That’s just the frustrating part, you keep giving and giving and giving and all you're asking is to be able to eat."

Lengthy application processes and administrative backlogs are a problem elsewhere in the U.S. In New York, the city's Human Resources Administration failed to promptly process 40% of SNAP applications last year, according to City Limits, a nonprofit investigative outlet focusing on homelessness. 

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Cathy May, 64, leads a SNAP training at Arkansas Children's Hospital in June 2022 in Little Rock, Arkansas.

A 'devastating' financial ripple effect

After pregnancy caused one of May's clients to temporarily leave her job as a server and bartender at A.W.Lin's Asian Cuisine in Little Rock, she lost access to food stamps because income verification paperwork was sent to her old address. Christian Roberson said losing the monthly cushion was "devastating" and caused her family to become homeless because she and her husband fell about three to four months behind on rent.

The mother of five said it felt "almost impossible" to get the benefits back. Roberson, 27, said she sent in all the required documents, but still wasn't approved because the local Department of Human Services doesn't "really give us enough time to turn anything in."

In a statement to USA TODAY, the state DHS office said it is "required to provide benefits only to eligible clients, so it is necessary to make adjustments if a household has a change in income or repeated changes in income."

"We do aim to make the process for applying or making changes to a SNAP case as efficient and seamless as possible," Gavin Lesnick, chief of the office of communications and community engagement, said in the statement.

Last month, Roberson was finally issued EBT for the first time in 3½ years and used the money to get fresh and frozen vegetables, whole milk, bacon, chicken and hamburger meat. Before, her kids could eat only soup, bread and crackers, she said, while she and her husband went without food.

“I usually didn’t eat," Roberson said. "Me and my husband would literally starve ourselves just so our kids could.”

Rubinton said her research found the same outcomes for families across the country who suddenly found themselves without the SNAP benefits that were previously a lifeline.

“The whole point of this is to be a kind of insurance, to shield you from income volatility," she said. "But if you have this volatility and it pushes you on and off the program, it can actually make your food consumption more volatile, potentially." 

For Waxman, barriers to eligibility because of income changes are a political "puzzle" that policymakers are ignoring. 

"By not trying to figure out the way to be more responsive, we’re actually failing to help the people that I think people from all ideology perspectives agree are quote, unquote 'deserving,'” she said.

Contributing: Karen Weintraub, USA TODAY