Trump administration tightens work requirements for SNAP, which could cut hundreds of thousands from food stamps

It arrives as part of a broader effort to limit access to the federal safety net, the first of three such measures in the works. The USDA initially estimated that up to 750,000 individuals would be dropped from SNAP if the proposal took effect. In Wednesday’s call, the USDA adjusted that figure to 688,000.

Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents can’t receive SNAP benefits for more than three months during a three-year period, unless they’re working or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month.

But states can waive this time limit to ensure access to food stamps during the ups and downs of reentering the workforce. Prior to the rule, counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5 percent were included in waived areas.

The new rule, which is set to take effect on April 1, 2020, will tighten the criteria for states applying for such waivers, making 6 percent the minimum unemployment rate for a county to receive a waiver.

Officials say that about 7 percent of the individuals on SNAP are considered able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) and that the rule will save the government $5.5 billion over five years.

“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told reporters on the call. “This is about restoring the original intent of food stamps … moving more able-bodied Americans to self sufficiency.”

Perdue cited a booming economy as incentive for tightening states’ waivers. In 2000, the unemployment rate was 4 percent and the number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits was just over 17 million. In 2019, during the longest economic expansion in history, the the number of Americans receiving SNAP is over 36 million.

“Unemployment is 3.6 percent, the lowest in 50 years,” Perdue said. “There are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”

Brandon Lipps, the USDA deputy under secretary for food nutrition and consumer services, told reporters that the new rule does not affect children and their parents, those over 50 years old including the elderly, those with a disability, or pregnant women. It is restricted to individuals 18 to 49 without dependents. Lipps said that the USDA estimates 74 percent of the ABAWDs are not working.

“The changes reflect the belief that more Americans can enter and reenter the workforce,” Lipps said, “so they can know the dignity of work.”

Critics of the rule were swift to respond.

“It is deeply disappointing that despite overwhelming opposition to this proposal, the White House has finalized a rule that stiffens work requirements for millions of SNAP participants, which will likely lead to hundreds of thousands of people losing their benefits,” said Share Our Strength’s senior vice president, Lisa Davis.

The other two proposed rule changes, not yet final, aim to cap deductions for utility allowance and to limit access to SNAP for working poor families.

A new study by the Urban Institute shows that the combined impact of these rules would cut 3.7 million people from SNAP in an average month. Millions more would experience reductions in monthly benefits and 982,000 students would lose automatic access to free or reduced price school meals.

Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, chair of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations, noted that Congress voted against these policies in the 2018 Farm Bill.

“This is an unacceptable escalation of the administration’s war on working families, and it comes during a time when too many are forced to stretch already-thin budgets to make ends meet. The USDA is the Grinch that stole Christmas. Shame on them,” Fudge said in a statement.

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