USDA introduces bill to restrict access to food stamps

January 7, 2019

At the direction of President Donald Trump, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has announced a proposed rule intended to “move more able-bodied recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to self-sufficiency through the dignity of work.”

“Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream,” said Perdue. “As we make benefits available to those who truly need them, we must also encourage participants to take proactive steps toward self-sufficiency. Moving people to work is common-sense policy, particularly at a time when the unemployment rate is at a generational low.”

The rule proposed by the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) focuses on work-related program requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs). The rule would apply to non-disabled people, aged 18–49, with no dependents. The rule would not apply to the elderly, the disabled, or pregnant women.

Under current SNAP requirements, ABAWDs must work or participate in an employment program for at least 20 hours a week to continue to receive benefits for more than three months over a 36-month period. States may request to waive the time limit in areas with an unemployment rate above 10% or where there are “not sufficient jobs,” which current regulations primarily define as an unemployment rate 20% above the national average. USDA’s proposal mandates that work provisions are waived only when necessary, encouraging states to renew their focus on helping SNAP participants find a path to self-sufficiency.

A number of government officials and organizations responded negatively to the proposed rule. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) posted the following statement on his website: “Today, on the very same day the President is signing a Farm Bill that was approved in both the House and the Senate with strong bipartisan support, USDA is proposing new rules that make an end-run around this brand new Farm Bill. This bad-faith rule change relates to work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to make it harder for states to request waivers based on local job conditions. These rules will do nothing to ‘restore the dignity of work,’ and instead are a direct challenge to the decisions made by Congress in the bipartisan Farm Bill.”

Lisa Davis, senior vice president at Share Our Strength—the nonprofit that runs the No Kid Hungry campaign in the United States—responded similarly. “This rule proposes a one-size-fits-all approach and eliminates state flexibility, which historically has provided states the discretion to waive work requirements when unemployment is high, or jobs are unavailable. If finalized, this change would unnecessarily prevent governors from making decisions that best serve the people in their communities. It is also poor public policy. While we can all agree that a good job is the best pathway out of poverty, punishing those who cannot find work or who may have limited skills, health issues, or inadequate transportation is counterproductive and mean-spirited. Ultimately this rule will create more barriers for struggling families and make it harder for states to help them get back on their feet.”

USDA press release

Proposed rule (pdf)