photo: Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue testified before Congress in February about proposed changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known more commonly as food stamps. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

By tightening food stamp work requirements, the Trump administration limits states’ ability to aid high-unemployment areas. And more regulations are coming.

On Wednesday, the Trump administration took another step toward achieving a dream of welfare reformers since the Clinton era by tightening the rules around food aid. It’s the first of three major regulatory shifts that could see millions booted from food benefits.

A new rule set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture revises work requirements for adults participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a frequent target of conservatives since President Donald Trump took office. The new final rule rolls back the leeway of states to issue waivers, which allow food-aid recipients in areas with high unemployment to continue to receive aid beyond statutory time limits set for the program.

USDA Secretary Sonny Purdue described the waivers as a “loophole” that states used to “effectively bypass important eligibility guidelines” when he testified about the program before Congress in February. Instead, the new USDA rule will adjust the criteria for when and where states can make these requests. The new formula, which uses nationwide historical employment data, will effectively zero out places and populations that struggle with work.

Under current law, “able-bodied” adults without dependents (ages 15 through 49) are required to work at least 20 hours per week (or show an equivalent participation in work training) in order to receive SNAP benefits. There’s a cap on enrollment for those who can’t meet the work requirements, a limit of three months within a three-year period. In places where unemployment is high, states can ask USDA to waive this time limit, allowing people to receive food aid for a longer term.

But as of April 1, 2020, both the standard for these waivers and the areas they apply will be narrowed. The department estimates that some 688,000 individuals will no longer receive SNAP benefits, leading to an estimated savings of $5.5 billion over five years.

“In today’s economy, the longest economic expansion in the history of the United States that the president has sustained, now is the time to help these people engage back to work,” Purdue said in a call with reporters.

More than 141,500 comments about the rule change were submitted during a public feedback period, the overwhelming majority of them negative. With few changes between the rule in its proposed and final forms, it appears that the administration did not heed any criticism. Many more comments were registered today from Democratic lawmakers. Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown slammed the rule as “mean spirited” and “despicable.” Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy described the rule “the definition of cruelty.”

The rule, which will be published in the Federal Register on December 5, is the first of three regulations to be introduced by the Trump administration. Two other rules—one that would restrict the ability of states to adjust income limits and asset tests for eligibility, and one that would provide a single federal standard for allowances for utility costs in place of state standards—are still being weighed.

All told, if these three restrictions had been in place in 2018, about 3.7 million fewer people (or 2.1 million fewer households) would be eligible for food aid, decreasing annual benefits by $4.2 billion, according to the Urban Institute’s analysis.

“What the final rule does is to tighten the requirements for an area to qualify for those waivers,” says Laura Wheaton, senior fellow for the Urban Institute. “As a result, this will mean that more people are subject to time-limited benefits, unless they’re meeting work requirements. Some of those will lose eligibility for SNAP, because they do not meet the work requirements.”

In the past, states could request waivers for broader areas. For example, within a metro area, there might be a county with high unemployment adjacent to a county with low unemployment. In their requests to USDA, states could combine adjacent counties as a single area for consideration for a waiver for SNAP time limits. Under the new dispensation, states may ask for waivers only for small labor market areas—the smallest geographic area for which the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides unemployment data.

The sting will be widespread. Thirty-six states—led by Democratic and Republican governors alike—currently have waivers in place for SNAP time limits in place for areas where unemployment is high. But the impact of the new rule will vary widely from state to state. In Kentucky, for example, Wheaton estimates that 62 percent of the state’s low-income population lives in waived areas (as of 2018). Under the new rule, that share could fall by two-thirds. Some states struggling with high unemployment have statewide waivers in place, among them California, Louisiana, and New Mexico. Now, such statewide waivers are out; in some of those places, high overall unemployment fails to register at the small labor market area level. In Rhode Island and Nevada, the share of the state’s low-income population living in waiver-eligible areas would have fallen to 8 percent and 5 percent, respectively, had the rule been in place in 2018. “Some of the states just lose a lot of their access to waivers,” Wheaton says.

Moreover, states must rely on historical unemployment data, which means that in the event of a sudden economic downturn, areas may not qualify for SNAP time-limit waivers until months after the fact, according to Robert Greenstein, president for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Under the new rule, an area can qualify for a waiver if the average unemployment rate over a 24-month period has been A) 20 percent higher than the national average over the same period and B) at least 6 percent.

“Far fewer areas will qualify for waivers during a widespread, national recession,” Greenstein writes. “A state with spiking unemployment reaching levels as high as 9 percent would not qualify for a waiver if national unemployment were also high, such as at 8 percent. This will limit a core strength of SNAP—its responsiveness to changes in economic conditions so that individuals who lose their source of income can quickly qualify for temporary food assistance.”

Overall, the effects of the new regulation will fall hardest on people of color, people without higher education, and people living in rural areas. A formula based on historic data for overall unemployment will not register deeper unemployment among African Americans, for example, or the challenge that rural residents face in finding new jobs. According to Wheaton’s analysis, if this change to waivers had been in place in 2018, the total number of households participating in SNAP would have fallen by at least 5 percent in nine states. Among the hardest-hit places: Nevada (which would have seen a 11.6 percent reduction in household SNAP participation) and Washington, D.C. (16.9 percent).

Work requirements for welfare is a major domestic goal for the Trump presidency. The administration has issued some far-fetched ideas, including Purdue’s proposal for a Blue Apron–style “Harvest Box” delivery program or a federal catch-all Department of Welfare. Other Republicans have tried sweeping efforts, too: former Maine Governor Paul LePage threatened to withdraw from SNAP if he could’t ban the purchase of sodas, while former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker tried to require drug tests for food aid. Now, though, the administration is narrowing its vision for welfare reform, swapping the ax for the scalpel.

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