Trump Administration Tightens Food Stamp Eligibility Requirements for SNAP Recipients

December 4, 2019 Updated: December 4, 2019

The Trump administration has announced changes to the federal food stamp program that strengthen eligibility requirements for certain categories of aid recipients, cutting benefits while encouraging self-sufficiency amid record-low unemployment.

Department of Agriculture officials said at a press conference Wednesday that the finalized modifications to parts of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will cut benefits for 688,000 able-bodied adults without dependent children, while saving taxpayers $5.5 billion over five years.

USDA Deputy Under Secretary Brandon Lipps told journalists that the rule will be published in the Federal Register on Thursday, to be implemented in 120 days.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the final rule would move more able-bodied SNAP recipients toward self-sufficiency and into employment.

“Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work. This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans reenter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them,” Purdue said.

Unemployment in the United States stood at 3.6 percent in October.

“President Trump’s policies, fortunately, have unleashed a booming economy. He’s putting people back to work, increasing wages,” the USDA chief said.

The USDA has long argued the SNAP reforms are necessary to save money and to eliminate what it sees as the widespread abuse of the program.

“In 2000, the unemployment rate was 4 percent and the number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits was just over 17 million,” Purdue said at a press conference. “In 2019, during the longest economic expansion in history, the unemployment rate is now 3.6 percent yet the number of Americans receiving SNAP is over 36 million people.”

Purdue said the rule changes restore the food stamp system to be more in line with the intention of Congress, namely “assistance through difficult times, not a way of life.”

“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” he said. “Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”

Conservatives and groups fighting for fiscal responsibility have long argued for SNAP reforms.

“Work requirements work. The Trump administration understands this and is pursuing smart policy in an effort to move millions off the sidelines and back into the workforce,” said Kristina Rasmussen, senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability, in remarks to Agri-Pulse.

Opponents of the rule argue it will increase hunger and hardship for many.

Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), who chairs the subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee that oversees SNAP, said the new regulation was 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.”

Who Is Affected?

The changes affect able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependent children (ABAWD).

“This rule does not change the USDA’s strong and continuing commitment to provide for the most vulnerable among us,” the Deputy Secretary said. He added that the new rule does not affect children, the elderly, pregnant women, or disabled people.

Lipps said that the new rule “aligns SNAP to support the promise and dignity of work as a top program priority. There is a real need for more workers in this country and when individuals are employed and earning money, it is better for them, for our communities and for our nation.”

Changes to SNAP for Able-Bodied Adults

The Deputy Under Secretary said the finalized version of the rule, called the Requirements for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWD), will make it more difficult for states to gain waivers from a requirement that food stamp recipients meet certain work-related conditions.

Federal law limits the amount of time an able-bodied adult without dependents can receive SNAP benefits to 3 months in a 36-month period, unless that person meets certain work requirements, including that recipients either work or are enrolled in a vocational training program for at least 20 hours per week.

However, the rules allow state agencies to waive the time limit and extend SNAP eligibility for able-bodied adults if the unemployment rate in a given area is relatively high or where there is a lack of sufficient jobs.

The USDA said that amid a robust economy, the need to waive those requirements is significantly reduced.

“The law allows states to apply for waivers of this time limit due to economic conditions,” Lipps said. “But today, counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5 percent are included in waived areas.”

“This final rule places common-sense limits on such waivers and encourages state partners to engage with SNAP recipients as they build new skills, seek opportunities, and ultimately move toward a better life,” Lipps said.

Key changes include preventing areas from getting waivers unless their unemployment rate is at least 6 percent, as well as heightened standards around data and evidence. Statewide waivers will also be disallowed and local waivers will be allowed only with approval from the state’s governor.

The USDA said the changes would reduce the areas that qualify for waivers by about 75 percent.

“These changes emphasize our belief that more Americans can enter, reenter, and remain in the workforce,” Lipps said. “The strong economy is creating opportunities for all. Now is the time for us to engage with this subset of SNAP participants so that they can know the dignity of work and the lasting transformation that it provides.”

3 SNAP Changes

The revised food stamp eligibility requirement for ABAWDs are among three changes the USDA is seeking to introduce. Overall, the changes would put forward stricter work requirements for eligibility, change the way states automatically enroll families into SNAP when they receive other types of federal aid, and cap deductions for utility costs that are used to calculate SNAP benefits.

The President’s Executive Order on Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility has provided the thrust for SNAP reform. It provided guiding principles for public assistance programs, including encouraging employment and economic independence by strengthening work requirements for people able to work.

“Since its inception, the welfare system has grown into a large bureaucracy that might be susceptible to measuring success by how many people are enrolled in a program rather than by how many have moved from poverty into financial independence,” the executive order said. “This is not the type of system that was envisioned when welfare programs were instituted in this country.”

The three draft proposals were published in the Federal Register this year: Requirements for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents, or ABAWD (pdf), in February, the Revision of Categorical Eligibility in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) (pdf), in July, and the Standardization of State Heating and Cooling Standard Utility Allowances, or SUA (pdf), in October.

President Donald Trump has long argued that many Americans using SNAP do not need it given the strong economy and low unemployment, and should be removed as a way to both save taxpayers billions of dollars and encourage self-reliance and upward economic mobility.

A study by the Urban Institute (pdf) found that the three programs together, if implemented last year, would cut food stamps for an estimated 3.7 million people and 2.1 million fewer households, while reducing taxpayer expenditures by $4.2 billion per year.

“We estimate that if these changes had been implemented in 2018, 3.7 million fewer people and 2.1 million fewer households would have received SNAP, and annual benefits would have decreased by $4.2 billion. Some states would face substantial reductions in participation and benefits, but others that make little or no use of time-limit waivers or broad-based categorical eligibility would be minimally affected,” the study said.

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