SNAP is a federal program that helps low-income individuals and families buy food. | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

This article has been updated with comments from the state.

More than 10,000 Kentuckians have lost food assistance in the state in the last several months because of a work requirement affecting some people who are part of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program commonly referred to as SNAP.

That’s according to an analysis by representatives of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy and the consumer advocacy group Kentucky Voices for Health who have been looking at how the work requirement is affecting participation in SNAP this year in Kentucky.

SNAP is a federal program that helps low-income individuals and families buy food, such as meat, fruits and vegetables. It also can be used to purchase seeds and plants to grow food.

In recent years, the state has been reinstating a three-month time limit on how long adults, ages 18-49, without a disability or dependents could receive benefits without working about 20 hours a week, according to policy analysts Dustin Pugel and Jason Dunn. The bulk of the counties were brought on board earlier this year, from February to May.

The result, according to the co-authors, is 10,097 individuals out of a potential 54,000 losing their benefits between May and September. And only 34 people had re-entered the program as of September, according to the analysis, which relies on data from the state.

Dustin Pugel

The loss of benefits is concerning, Pugel said, because that’s “a lot of folks who are no longer getting help buying groceries.”

Although SNAP only covers a small portion of participants’ food budgets, “it’s very important, not only to the folks who use it but to local economies,” Pugel said in an interview.

Dunn noted the vulnerability of the recipients: “By being eligible for SNAP benefits, these individuals’ income is less than 133 percent of poverty, and since they’re working less than 20 hours per week, they’ll be at the lower end of that scale,” he noted by email. “Loss of these benefits will increase their food insecurity, which numerous studies have shown increases negative health outcomes.”

The state Cabinet for Health and Family Services takes issue with the term “loss,” noting, “No one loses access to SNAP benefits, although some beneficiaries may choose not to comply, or cannot comply because they are already working but not reporting income.”

The state also noted that there are alternative ways to meet the requirement such as education and job training and “appropriate exemptions and good cause exceptions for not meeting requirements.”

The Kentucky Career Centers are being used to help SNAP participants improve their skills and move “beyond dependency,” according to the state, which expects individuals and the state to see economic gains like the ones it says have been achieved in states like Kansas through work requirements.

Meanwhile, “Kentucky is experiencing record low unemployment,” the state noted.

The loss of food assistance in Kentucky has varied from county to county. Between May and September, the drop in SNAP participation ranged from 4.7 percent in Owsley County to 46.9 percent in Marion County (measured as a share of those for whom a time limit applied), according to a news release. Eight southeastern counties that are part of a SNAP Employment and Training pilot program are exempt, the co-authors noted.

Pugel is particularly concerned about the work requirement being imposed in labor surplus areas, where it can be tough to find a good job.

“There’s a good argument to be made that counties that are labor surplus areas should be waived, if not all the counties,” Pugel said.

The news release notes that “the federal government makes it easier for states to waive the SNAP time limit for such counties,” and that “for some of those areas, this year was the first time the time limit barriers were in effect in the history of the food assistance program.”

The Bevin administration has been trying to make a work requirement a part of the state’s Medicaid overhaul, also known as Kentucky HEALTH or the Section 1115 Medicaid waiver, but the proposal was sent back to the federal government for further review earlier this year as a result of litigation. Pugel says the drop off in SNAP participation is a bellwether of what could happen if Kentucky HEALTH is approved.