Hundreds of Thousands Could Lose Food Stamps Under Tighter Work Requirements

By: - December 4, 2019 12:00 am

A sign advertises a program that allows food stamp recipients to shop for groceries at a farmers market in Topsham, Maine. The U.S. Department of Agriculture today announced a new rule that tightens work requirements for SNAP recipients. Robert F. Bukaty/The Associated Press

The Trump administration Wednesday announced it is tightening work requirements for some food stamp recipients, affecting about 688,000 people who currently benefit from the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, known as SNAP.

The finalized rule, which will take effect in April, will make it harder for states to exempt adults without dependents from work requirements. Under federal law, able-bodied adults ages 18 to 49 can receive food stamps for no more than three months in a 36-month period unless they are working or participating in a training program at least 80 hours a month or volunteering at least six hours a week.

But states can waive the requirements during economic downturns. Previously, counties with unemployment rates of 2.5% or higher were eligible for the state waivers. Under the new rule, announced by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, the minimum rate is 6%.

“States are seeking waivers for a wide swath of their populations,” Perdue said in a call with reporters. “We’re taking action to reform our program, to restore the dignity of work to a sizable part of our population.”

Perdue said Trump’s policies have “unleashed a booming economy” resulting in “more job openings than people to fill those jobs.”

Perdue pointed out that the unemployment rate was 4% and 17 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2000; but with the current 3.6% unemployment rate, more than 36 million do.

The rule would lead to higher rates of hunger and poverty, said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, a group based in Washington, D.C., that advocates against hunger.

“The final rule would cause serious harm to individuals, communities, and the nation while doing nothing to improve the health and employment of those impacted by the rule,” he said in a statement. “In addition, the rule would harm the economy, grocery retailers, agricultural producers, and communities by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur local economic activity.”

The new rule does not apply to children and their parents, people over age 50, people with a disability or pregnant women.

It’s the first of three proposed changes to the SNAP program. The other two would cap deductions for utility allowances when calculating family incomes and change the way some states automatically enroll low-income families in SNAP when they receive other federal aid.

The rule announced Wednesday would save taxpayers about $5.5 billion over five years, said Brandon Lipps, deputy under secretary for the USDA’s Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services in a call with reporters.

Originally, the USDA estimated 750,000 people could lose their benefits under the rule change. Lipps said the agency now estimates that 688,000 would be dropped from the rolls.

A November study by the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, estimated that if all three rule changes are implemented, 3.7 million fewer people and 2.1 million fewer households would receive SNAP, and annual benefits would decrease by $4.2 billion.

Lawmakers late last year reached a bipartisan compromise on the farm bill that excluded work requirements for food stamp recipients.

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Teresa Wiltz

Teresa Wiltz covers welfare, housing and social services for Stateline. Previously, she worked for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.