Debt Ceiling

CBO: Debt Ceiling Deal Means 78,000 More Able-Bodied, Childless Adults Could Get Food Stamps

New work requirements will target those over age 50, but the debt ceiling deal also loosens existing work requirements for those under age 50.


One of the more fascinating sideshows of the debate over raising the federal government's debt ceiling has been the Republican-led effort to impose new work requirements on some food stamp recipients.

On the left, the idea that working-age, able-bodied, childless food stamp beneficiaries should be required to find employment in order to qualify for government benefits has been met with the usual shrill responses claiming that Republicans must hate the poor. On the right, the focus has been on ensuring government welfare systems aren't sending the wrong signals. "Incentives matter. And the incentives today are out of whack," House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R–Calif.) said in an April speech at the New York Stock Exchange. "It's time to get Americans back to work."

In the end, however, the debt ceiling deal struck by McCarthy and President Joe Biden is likely to end up with more Americans qualifying for food stamps—in large part because the deal actually removes work requirements for many individuals currently subject to them.

Under the terms of the Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2023, which cleared the House on Wednesday and is awaiting a vote in the Senate, an estimated 78,000 additional people will gain access to food stamps, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). Those additional beneficiaries will add an estimated $2.1 billion to the cost of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the official name for food stamps, over the next decade—a minuscule increase to a program that will cost $127 billion this year.

The new enrollees and the additional costs are not all that significant. What is more interesting is that SNAP enrollment will increase at all, given all the political rhetoric on both sides. In short: The left says Republicans want to kick people off welfare, and the right argues that getting people off welfare—by getting them into jobs—is good. So why does this deal put more people on welfare?

Much of the media coverage has been focused on the GOP-backed plan to apply work requirements to able-bodied, childless individuals between the ages of 50 and 54. (Those under age 50 are already subject to work requirements.) Those between the ages of 50 and 52 would face the new work requirements starting in October, with the age limit raised to 54 next year.

But that only tells half the story. The bill would also remove work requirements for many individuals across all age groups. "Several groups would newly be exempt from work requirements: people experiencing homelessness, veterans, and people ages 18 to 24 who were in foster care when they turned 18," the CBO explains.

The expanded work requirements for those over 50 would save about $6.5 billion in SNAP spending over the next decade, the CBO concludes. But the new exclusions written into the law would more than offset those savings by costing an extra $6.8 billion over the same period.

Again, the dollars aren't really the most important part. As a result of the changes made in the debt ceiling bill, some 50-somethings will be required to work to receive food stamps, but some 30-somethings will now be able to access food stamps while remaining jobless. It's unclear how that tradeoff is supposed to correct the "out of whack" incentives that McCarthy and his fellow Republicans were campaigning to change.

Since these changes will add beneficiaries to the SNAP program, they will do nothing to address the worrying growth in the cost of food stamps, which has doubled since 2019. Congress will have another chance to address that when it considers a new farm bill in the coming months.

For now, it's also unclear why these new distinctions have been added to the law. Excluding the homeless might make sense, but why shouldn't able-bodied and childless veterans—who have a plethora of exclusive job opportunities available to them—be expected to find work before getting SNAP benefits? Why should someone's living situation as an 18-year-old affect whether they qualify for an unrelated welfare program two or three decades later?

Each new protected class of individuals who are exempt from the rules undermines the goal of transitioning able-bodied Americans from welfare to work. That's likely to increase both dependence on the welfare system and resentment of the seemingly arbitrary lines that dole out different benefits to people of equal socioeconomic status. If anything, it worsens the already bizarre incentives at play.