Changes to SNAP Work Requirements Threaten Rural Native Communities

By Cheyenne McNeill


Janie Simms Hipp, Chickasaw Nation, Director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law, Photo by Jarrette Werk

If certain provisions of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Farm Bill pass, many Americans who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, could have to find jobs or risk losing their benefits.

Proposed versions of the Farm Bill could include stricter work requirements for Americans served by SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps. Current work requirements require that able-bodied recipients at least work part-time, participate in job-training, pursue educational opportunities or take a job if they are offered one. Another current requirement says that childless, unemployed adults lose their benefits if they don’t find employment after three months. One of the proposed changes to the bill could include the possibility of increasing the employment requirements of SNAP recipients by tying work requirements or job-training to an individual’s participation in SNAP. 

The legislation could require that able-bodied individuals who are ages 18-59 work a minimum of 20 hours a week or be in a job-training program to keep the benefits.  

Several of the provisions and factors in the Farm Bill could affect American Indian people, but some are saying that changes to SNAP could be potentially devastating to those in Indian Country. About 24 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives benefit from SNAP, compared to only 14 percent of the entire United States population.

According to the United States Department of Agriculture, 60 percent of SNAP recipients are elderly, children or have disabilities. Changes to SNAP and its work requirements have the potential to greatly impact American Indian and Alaska Native families

Janie Simms Hipp, director of the Indigenous Food and Agriculture Initiative at the University of Arkansas School of Law, says that the issue of adding work requirements brings up other questions.

“If we are going to tighten up these requirements, then where are these job-training programs that people are actually going to go to,” she asked.

Hipp said job trainings likely would not take place on reservations, and since many residents might not have cars, getting to training locations wouldn’t be feasible. The situation becomes more complicated when considering that the jobs may not exist where rural or remote Natives live.

Program Director of the Intertribal Agriculture Council, Zach Ducheneaux, noted that urban Natives could end up having better chances of meeting the work requirements than others.

“If you’re an urban Indian, you’re going to have a better shot of fulfilling the work requirements because there’s just more employment to be had than in some of our rural settings,” he said.

For example, in North Carolina, the unemployment rate in Wake County, where the state’s second largest city is located, is 3.7 percent. But in Robeson County, a rural county where the Native population accounts for about 41 percent of the county’s residents, the unemployment rate is 6.4 percent.

Hipp also said that it raises the question of whether tribal job-training programs are acceptable under federal law. She said that conversations about people not wanting to work should never be the focus. 

“People want to work. But, if there are no jobs, how can you work,” Hipp asked.

Changes to SNAP could also greatly affect food distribution programs and other parts of the Farm Bill. Hipp said that Congress can conflate requirements for one program with those for other programs.

“Agriculture and food systems have to be apart of the solutions in Indian Country,” Ducheneaux said. “As long as we continue to work at everything and not take care of feeding ourselves, we’re going to continue to flounder and not flourish like we could.”

The House and Senate have both passed versions of a Farm Bill and have until Sept 30 to reconcile the both versions of the Farm Bill before it expires. 

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