The new rule applies changes to an existing restriction, which requires able-bodied adults without dependents to work at least 20 hours a week or be participating in a work program in order to receive food stamps. Currently, that person would only be eligible for three months’ worth of SNAP benefits over a 3-year period—however, state governors were able to waive the requirement for areas with high unemployment rates or a lack of available jobs.
That is no longer the case. Under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new policy, states can only waive the work requirement for areas where unemployment is both at least 6 percent and 20 percent above the national average. According to the USDA’s figures, 688,000 adults would lose their benefits under the policy, which is scheduled to take effect in April 2020.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue lauded the changes in a press release.
“Government dependency has never been the American dream,” said Perdue. “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not allowing it to become an infinitely giving hand.”
But the decision came after months of criticism.
Notably, Republican and Democratic lawmakers had an opportunity to pass these policies in the 2018 Farm Bill (and in previous iterations of the legislation) but chose not to. According to a statement from Debbie Stabenow (D-MI), who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, 47 senators from both sides of the aisle urged the Trump administration to withdraw the rule.
They were far from alone. A public comment period on the recently-passed rule drew 140,000 responses, reports the Times, most of them negative.
Many pointed out that framing these SNAP recipients as freeloaders, as the USDA does, mischaracterizes the struggles they face. Poverty experts and anti-hunger advocates say the work requirement will pose considerable difficulties “for people who are already homeless or have transportation issues … especially for low-wage workers who often are not offered 20 hours a week of steady work.
The rule also prevents states from defining what constitutes an “area” of economic distress. Instead, states must rely on waivers for labor market areas defined by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Anti-poverty experts say this will most likely make it difficult for cities surrounded by affluent counties, such as Detroit, to receive the waiver.
The USDA touted that the new restrictions will save approximately $5.5 billion over five years. For perspective, the Department of Defense requested a $750 billion budget for 2020. Eliminating ICE, meanwhile, would free up approximately $6 billion per year.
But the USDA doesn’t plan on stopping with this recent rule change. Two more restrictions would strike millions more off SNAP benefits and directly impact working families—including close to a million school children.
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 study by the Urban Institute shows 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 Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, chairwoman of House Agriculture Committee’s subcommittee on nutrition, chastised the USDA for making the announcement around the holidays in a statement.
“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 President has cynically weaponized USDA as a blunt political instrument, in clear opposition to its mission to ‘do right and feed everyone,’” she added. “USDA has sunk to a new low in its war on the poor.”