The Trump administration is taking a step toward tightening work requirements in the food-stamp program, with a focus on high-unemployment areas that have been exempted from those rules since the recession.
On Friday, the Department of Agriculture will begin soliciting public comment on work requirements, the first step toward changing those rules, USDA administrator Brandon Lipps said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.
The agency is not advancing any changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as “food stamps” — at this time, Lipps said. But it is interested in restoring work requirements in states where they have been waived in recent years because of high local unemployment rates.
Under existing rules, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) can only receive benefits for three months, unless they work at least 80 hours a month or participate in a qualified job training or volunteer program.
But those rules do not currently apply in Alaska, California, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico and parts of 28 other states, where jobs are less widely available.
USDA estimates that roughly 2.9 million of the 43.6 million people who used food-stamps last year — or roughly 6.8 percent — are unemployed ABAWDs.
“This is a population that we believe we can move to self-sufficiency, with the right focus,” Lipps said Thursday.
The move, while preliminary, is likely to please many Republicans — and rankle food-stamp defenders and anti-hunger advocates. For years, conservatives in Congress and at influential think tanks, such as the Heritage Foundation, have argued that stricter work requirements would save taxpayers money while putting low-income people on a path to independence.
President Donald Trump’s 2019 budget proposal specifically recommended USDA slash work-requirement waivers to high-unemployment states, granting them only to individual counties with unemployment rates of 10 percent or more over a year-long period. It also proposed raising the ABAWD cutoff age and eliminating discretionary state exemptions. That change would save the government almost $27 billion over the next 10 years, the administration said.
“It’s evident that there are able-bodied adults without dependents who are on the food stamp program, who we believe it is in their best interests, and their families’ best interests, to move into an independent lifestyle,” Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters several weeks before the budget came out. “During the last downturn, it became a lifestyle for some people. We don’t want it to become permanent.”
But as USDA collects public comment on changes to SNAP work requirements, it is also likely to hear from anti-hunger advocates who argue that past adjustments have increased hunger and hurt vulnerable populations.
While research into the ABAWD population is limited, some surveys have suggested that these nonworking adults include large numbers of veterans, people with undiagnosed disabilities, and children aging out of the foster care system — circumstances which can present obstacles to holding down steady employment.
Work requirements also punish people who are looking for work but can’t find it, advocates argue. And the rules do not account for the availability of qualified education and training programs, which not all areas have.
“SNAP recipients’ benefits are generally cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job or willing to participate in a qualifying work or job training program,” the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, wrote in a recent report. “As a result, this rule is, in reality, a time limit on benefits and not a work requirement, as it is sometimes described.”
In his comments Thursday, Lipps said that USDA would take those comments into account before proposing a final rule change. That could potentially be months, or even years, away.