A sign in a market window advertises the acceptance of food stamps. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Trump administration is taking a step toward tightening work requirements in the food stamp program, with a focus on high-unemployment areas that have been exempted from those rules since the recession.

On Friday, the Agriculture Department will begin soliciting public comment on work requirements, the first step toward changing those rules, USDA administrator Brandon Lipps said in a conference call with reporters Thursday.

The agency is not advancing any changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as “food stamps” — at this time, Lipps said. But it is interested in restoring work requirements in states where they have been waived in recent years because of high local unemployment rates.

Under existing rules, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) can receive benefits for only three months, unless they work at least 80 hours a month or participate in a qualified job-training or volunteer program.

But those rules do not currently apply in Alaska, California, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico and parts of 28 other states, where jobs are less widely available.

USDA estimates that 2.9 million of the 43.6 million people who used food stamps last year — or roughly 6.8 percent — are unemployed ABAWDs.

“This is a population that we believe we can move to self-sufficiency, with the right focus,” Lipps said Thursday.

The move, while preliminary, is likely to please many Republicans — and rankle food stamp defenders and anti-hunger advocates. For years, conservatives in Congress and at influential think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation have argued that stricter work requirements would save taxpayers money while putting low-income people on a path to independence.

President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal specifically recommended USDA eliminate work-requirement waivers for entire states, granting them only to individual counties with unemployment rates of 10 percent or more over a year-long period. It also proposed new work requirements for adults ages 50 to 62 who are currently exempted. And it proposed eliminating states’ ability to exempt some additional, unemployed ABAWDs from work, depending on individual circumstances. That change would reduce spending on the program by almost $27 billion over the next 10 years, the administration said.

Those recommendations came as part of a dramatic package of proposals that would radically restructure the food stamp program, slashing funding by $213.5 billion over 10 years and replacing half of most participants’ benefits with a box of nonperishable, government-sourced food items. The administration has pitched these proposals as needed changes to a program that could better promote self-sufficiency and nutrition.

“Long-term dependency has never been part of the American dream,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. “USDA’s goal is to move individuals and families from SNAP back to the workforce as the best long-term solution to poverty. Everyone who receives SNAP deserves an opportunity to become self-sufficient and build a productive, independent life. Too many states have asked to waive work requirements, abdicating their responsibility to move participants to self-sufficiency.”

As USDA collects public comment on changes to SNAP work requirements, it is also likely to hear from anti-hunger advocates who argue that past adjustments have increased hunger and hurt vulnerable populations.

While research into the ABAWD population is limited, some surveys have suggested these nonworking adults include large numbers of veterans, people with undiagnosed disabilities and children aging out of the foster-care system — circumstances which can present obstacles to holding down steady employment.

Work requirements also punish people who are looking for work but cannot find it, advocates argue. The rules do not account for the availability of qualified education and training programs, which not all areas have.

“SNAP recipients’ benefits are generally cut off after three months irrespective of whether they are searching diligently for a job or willing to participate in a qualifying work or job training program,” the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank, wrote in a recent report. “As a result, this rule is, in reality, a time limit on benefits and not a work requirement, as it is sometimes described.”

In his comments Thursday, Lipps said USDA would take all comments into account before proposing a final rule change. That could potentially be months, or even years, away.

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