It arrives as part of a broader effort to limit access to the federal food safety net, the first of three such measures in the works. The USDA initially estimated up to 750,000 individuals would be dropped from SNAP if the proposal took effect. In Wednesday’s call, the USDA adjusted that figure to 688,000.
Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents can receive SNAP benefits for a maximum of three months during a three-year period, unless they’re working or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month.
But states have been able to waive this time limit to ensure access to food stamps during the ups and downs of reentering the workforce. Before this rule, counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5 percent were included in waived areas.
The new rule, which is set to take effect on April 1, 2020, will tighten the criteria for states applying for such waivers, making 6 percent the minimum unemployment rate for a county to receive a waiver.
Officials say about 7 percent of the individuals on SNAP are considered able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) and that the rule will save the government $5.5 billion over five years.
“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told reporters on the call. “This is about restoring the original intent of food stamps … moving more able-bodied Americans to self sufficiency.”
Perdue cited a booming economy as incentive for tightening states’ waivers. In 2000, the unemployment rate was 4 percent and the number of Americans receiving SNAP benefits was just over 17 million. In 2019, during the longest economic expansion in history, the number of Americans receiving SNAP is over 36 million.
“Unemployment is 3.6 percent, the lowest in 50 years,” Perdue said. “There are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”
Brandon Lipps, the USDA deputy undersecretary for food nutrition and consumer services, told reporters the new rule does not affect children and their parents, those over 50 years old, those with a disability or pregnant women. It is restricted to individuals 18 to 49 without dependents. Lipps said the USDA estimates 74 percent of the ABAWDs are not working.
“The changes reflect the belief that more Americans can enter and reenter the workforce,” Lipps said, “so they can know the dignity of work.”
Lipps listed a number of tools states can use to assist with challenges, including federal funding for job training programs and work supports such as boots, uniforms and transit subsidies. He said Perdue sent a letter to governors a year ago about the rule, and that states have had ample time to prepare for the change.
Critics of the rule were swift to respond.
“It is deeply disappointing that despite overwhelming opposition to this proposal, the White House has finalized a rule that stiffens work requirements for millions of SNAP participants, which will likely lead to hundreds of thousands of people losing their benefits,” said Share Our Strength’s senior vice president, Lisa Davis.
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.
Stacy Dean, vice president of food assistance policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says the final ABAWDs rule makes it much harder for states with high unemployment to qualify for waivers during a national recession.
“That change really weakens SNAP’s ability to assist the unemployed during an economic downturn,” she said.
Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio), chairwoman of the House Agriculture subcommittee on nutrition, oversight and department operations, noted Congress voted against these policies in the 2018 Farm Bill.
And 47 senators from both parties urged the administration to withdraw the rule, according to a statement from Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the Senate Agriculture Committee’s ranking Democrat.
“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 USDA is the Grinch that stole Christmas. Shame on them,” Fudge said in a statement.