Work requirements for public assistance programs lock Americans out of college and higher-paying jobs

Easing work requirements for federal assistance programs could increase the number of adults who complete a college credential or degree, put more adults on a path to good-paying jobs, and make them less likely to need government assistance in the future, experts tell The Hechinger Report.

During the public emergency declared during the COVID-19 pandemic, a report by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University found that 58% of students had recently experienced food insecurity. Recognizing that many college students lost income and employment during the height of the pandemic, Congress temporarily waived work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which made more students eligible to receive monthly food assistance if they were approved for work study or had $0 in expected financial contributions. Those temporary exemptions ended on June 10 with the conclusion of the public health emergency, and now up to a million students may lose SNAP benefits. 

Critics, meanwhile, have pointed out that “changing SNAP rules to encourage education, rather than just employment, could help more people improve their circumstances” The Hechinger Report writes.

Additional restrictions further constricting access

States have flexibility in determining eligibility for federal benefits, and experts note that many of those rules are designed to exclude college students, who qualify only if they attend school at least half-time; meet income thresholds; and fulfill at least one other requirement, such as working at least 20 hours a week, qualifying for work-study, or raising a dependent child under age 6.

Related: Report: Pandemic relief funds helped students stay enrolled and afford basic needs >

The recent debt ceiling deal between the Biden administration and congressional Republicans further complicates the outlook. The deal added more restrictions for older SNAP recipients ages 50 to 54, but exempted from work requirements adults of all ages experiencing homelessness, veterans of all ages, and youth ages 18 to 24 who aged out of foster care, NPR reports. The deal also makes it more difficult for states to exempt low-income families in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program from the work requirement. All changes are set to expire in 2030.

“The federal financial aid system, like Pell Grants and our student loan program and state and institutional aid—those programs are intended to help the most low-income folks in our country make their dreams possible,” said Bryce McKibben, senior director of policy and advocacy at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. However, restrictions on federal assistance programs “make it so that those folks would have very severe consequences for themselves or their families if they wanted to enroll in higher education.”

To address these issues, colleges’ directors of basic needs and benefits navigators are helping students navigate systemic barriers to assistance programs, and some policymakers are working to expand eligibility for federal benefits. Last month, U.S. Rep. Jimmy Gomez, (D-Cal.), reintroduced the Enhance Access to SNAP Act of 2023, or EATS Act, which would permanently expand SNAP eligibility to millions of college students facing food insecurity. However, the bill faces an uphill battle in Congress.

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