Why “Get a Job!” Is Not the Answer to Decreasing Reliance on Food Stamps

Diana Polson |

“Just get a job!”

I’ve heard these words yelled out of car windows when I marched alongside poor and homeless people fighting for affordable housing and living-wage jobs in the San Francisco Bay area in the early 2000s. It’s a slogan many who have waited in lines at soup kitchens or homeless shelters have heard again and again.

Get a job! The belief that anyone who wants to work can get a job permeates our society and has crept into the thinking in both conservative and liberal circles. But this mindset has not emerged out of nowhere–it has been constructed and refined over the last 50 years by conservative scholars, policy wonks pursuing welfare reform and right-wing think tanks (for a detailed description see Lucy Williams article, “Decades of Distortion: The Right’s 30-Year Assault on Welfare”). Alice O’Connor, in her book “Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy and the Poor in Twentieth Century U.S. History” (2002) traced the shift in the study of poverty from a focus on low wages and labor exploitation during the Progressive era to its framing as an individualized problem due to personal failings and the behavioral characteristics of the poor that culminated in welfare reform in the 1990s.

Despite successful efforts over the last 10 years at beginning to shift this narrative back to structural inequality and the growth of the low-wage economy (thanks to the Fight for $15, the growth of unionism in the low wage service sector, Occupy Wall Street, the renewed Poor People’s Campaign and other efforts), the demonization of the poor, specifically those relying on SNAP and Medicaid, has reared its ugly head again on both the federal and state level.

In Pennsylvania, the House Health Committee is having a vote today (Tuesday, April 10) to add work requirements to SNAP, which is the nation’s most effective defense against hunger. HB1659 would prevent the Governor from using allowable federal exemptions to the work requirement, namely geographic waivers for childless adults aged 18-49 who are not disabled in areas of high unemployment. It would also impose work requirements on all two-parent families and on single-parent families with children over the age of 11.

In January of 2018, 1.85 million Pennsylvanians received these food stamps, which is 14.5% of the state’s population. Despite the underlying “Get a Job” ideology behind this proposed legislation, the reality is that most SNAP recipients already live in a household where at least one adult is working. Seventy-four percent of all households in Pennsylvania receiving SNAP have at least one household member who already has a job. And a primary purpose of the legislation is to impose these work requirements in areas of our state plagued by high unemployment, precisely where there is a dearth of job opportunities. While this legislation is targeted at the unemployed, it would also result in employed people losing access to SNAP as more documentation of work hours will lead to fewer people jumping through the hoops needed to get this assistance. The act of attaching more work requirements to SNAP will not result in more employment and economic security for Pennsylvanians, it will only ensure that more of those without work–many because they can’t find it–and their children, will go hungry.

How much would this legislation save the state on spending? Nothing. SNAP is 100% federally funded. This legislation would likely cost the state money due to administrative costs to verify individuals work status and hours as well as requirements that the state provide child care and transportation to those impacted by mandatory work requirements.

If Republicans (and Democrats) backing this bill are really serious about reducing the number of people on SNAP, here is what they need to do:

  1. Raise the minimum wage in Pennsylvania, which hasn’t been increased for over 10 years, so that workers can afford to buy their own food.
  2. Pursue policies (like family and medical leave insurance, paid sick leave, support for child care and fair scheduling) that support working parents so they can rely on a stable paycheck when dealing with inevitable life circumstances like having a child, getting sick or dealing with a sick family member or finding reliable and affordable childcare.
  3. Figure out ways to bring good jobs to regions in Pennsylvania with high levels of unemployment, including investing in higher education so the people of Pennsylvania have the education and skills needed by existing and (hopefully) incoming employers.
  4. Invest in the expansion of apprenticeship and other employer-connected job training opportunities that lead to good-paying jobs in Pennsylvania.

Rather than continue spinning the problem of poverty and reliance on social programs on what is lacking from the so-called undisciplined and lazy poor, Pennsylvania’s lawmakers need to “Do Their Job”—address the pervasive problems of poverty and the lack of family-supporting jobs that plague our state. Ensuring everyone in Pennsylvania has the economic security to be able to buy their own food will enable these lawmakers to reach their goal of reducing reliance on SNAP. Get to work!