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The U.S. Department of Agriculture offered its proposal Thursday, the same day the president signed a bill that rejected expanded work mandates.
The Trump administration proposed a rule Thursday to expand work requirements tied to food stamps by limiting the ability of states to shield certain residents from existing benefit restrictions.
Under current rules on the books, able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs, must work 80 hours per month to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits beyond three months in a three-year period. That’s unless the time limit is waived because the jurisdiction exceeds 10 percent unemployment or lacks “sufficient jobs.”
Currently Alaska, Louisiana, Nevada and New Mexico have statewide waivers granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and 29 other states have waivers applying to certain areas.
Toughening work requirements for some recipients became a major issue during debate about the latest farm bill, pushed by many House Republicans and President Trump. But senators resisted any new work mandates, which weren’t included in the final farm legislation signed by Trump on Thursday.
But the Trump USDA that same day announced its move to change requirements without legislative input. The rule would allow waivers “in a limited manner only for areas in which jobs are unavailable,” citing “widespread use” of waivers by states during a time of low unemployment. That’s because “sufficient jobs” has been defined as an unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average, which could mean areas with under 5 percent unemployment in a strong economy, according to USDA.
“These waivers weaken states' ability to move the ABAWD population to long-term self-sufficiency because they do not require ABAWDs to engage in work and work training,” wrote Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a recent letter to governors.
In a news release, Perdue said the government must “encourage participants to take proactive steps toward self-sufficiency.”
While the new rule wouldn’t touch the 10 percent unemployment bar for waivers, it adds a floor to the “sufficient jobs” definition in requiring eligible areas to have had at least 6 percent unemployment for two years.
The rule would further prevent states from combining data from high-unemployment areas with that of low-unemployment areas to maximize the area waived. It would also limit waivers to one year.
Hundreds of thousands of low-income people would be cut off from basic food assistance, according to the liberal-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
The average income of those who would be affected is 33 percent of the poverty line, CBPP estimated, when already most states don’t help adults without dependents meet federal work requirements with employment or training programs.
“Most of these individuals are ineligible for any form of government cash assistance because they’re not elderly, severely disabled, or raising minor children,” said Robert Greenstein, CBPP president, in a statement. “For many of them, SNAP is the only assistance they can receive to help make ends meet.”
People of color, particularly those with only a high school education, would be hardest hit because black unemployment is generally twice the white unemployment rate in any area, according to CBPP.
Greenstein recommended the federal government instead seek to improve job training and employment programs, raise the minimum wage, and strengthen the Earned Income Tax Credit.
Interested parties will have 60 days to comment on the proposed rule once it is posted to the Federal Register.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, during a Thursday press conference, said Trump was just trying to appear tough on poor people he portrays as taking “advantage of the system.”
“No one's taking advantage of the system. The system is policed. The system is audited,” Cuomo said. “These are people who need food. We're not giving out cash. We're not giving out luxury items.”
Dave Nyczepir is a News Editor at Government Executive’s Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.