The USDA is now proposing that states could waive the requirement only in areas where unemployment is above 7 percent. The current national unemployment rate stands at 3.7 percent.
About 2.8 million able-bodied recipients without children or an ailing person in their care were not working in 2016, according to the USDA’s latest numbers. Roughly 755,000 live in areas that stand to lose the waivers.
“This is unacceptable to most Americans and belies common sense, particularly when employment opportunities are as plentiful as they currently are,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on a press call, adding the measure could save taxpayers $15 billion over 10 years.
“This restores the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population,” he said.
The announcement came hours before President Trump signed an approximately $870 billion farm bill with funding for the nation’s agricultural programs and food stamps.
That legislation does not impose any tougher work requirements, even though the House version of the bill had restricted the waiver program and also imposed new requirements on parents with children ages 6 to 12, among other changes. The Senate version did not include those provisions.
The proposed changes will be published in the Federal Register, Perdue said, and the public will have 60 days to comment.
Congressional Democrats quickly slammed the plan and questioned whether the administration has a legal basis to authorize it.
“Congress writes laws, and the administration is required to write rules based on the law,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (Mich.), the top ranking Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee. “Administrative changes should not be driven by ideology. I do not support unilateral and unjustified changes that would take food away from families.”
Under current rules, able-bodied adults without dependents — or ABAWDs, as the USDA calls them — are eligible for food stamps from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for only three months in a three-year period if they do not work or participate in a job-training program for at least 20 hours each week.
States, however, can seek waivers that extend support for such individuals up to two years if they live in areas with a surplus of workers.
The proposed changes would also force states to reapply for waivers every year, rather than every two years. The change would not apply to elderly people or pregnant women.
Tougher eligibility requirements could overwhelm state efforts to help people find work, said Babs Roberts, director of the Washington state Department of Social Health Services.
“Even with as robust a program as we have — including a partnership with every community college in the state,” she said, it would be “really hard” for Washington to expand its job training efforts without significantly more funding.
But conservative groups had been frustrated that several of their proposals for stricter work requirements were rejected in the farm bill now headed to Trump’s desk.
“I applaud the proposed rule and proudly stand with the Trump administration in demonstrating the importance of state accountability and recipient success,” Rep. Michael K. Conaway (R-Tex.), chair of the House Agriculture Committee, said in a statement.
Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chair of the Agriculture Committee, said his office was still evaluating the plan but that giving the Trump administration flexibility on waivers may have proved crucial to securing support for the farm bill.
“I’m not sure we would have been able to get a farm bill had we not allowed the administration to handle it in the way they feel is the best way to handle it,” Roberts said, adding that he expects a public comment period on the plan.
Since the 1996 welfare law took effect, every state but Delaware has sought a time-limit waiver at some point, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which tracks such exemptions.
The number of Americans receiving food stamp benefits has already declined dramatically, falling from about 48 million in 2013 to about 40 million in 2018 as the broader economy rebounded and unemployment fell, according to federal statistics.