THE U.S. labor market is in robust condition. To cite one statistical indicator, the share of people age 25 to 54 — “prime-age” workers — either working or seeking work is now 82.8 percent, nearly where it was just before the Great Recession. Nevertheless, there are still weak spots, notably the lagging labor-force participation of prime-age men, whose rate of activity remains significantly below pre-recession levels. Government policy can and should target these Americans, with an eye toward assisting and incentivizing them to get back to work. One alternative, which has enjoyed strong bipartisan support, might be to make entry-level jobs pay better for able-bodied people with no dependents, via an increase in the earned-income tax credit, a federally funded wage supplement.

The Trump administration, however, has opted for a different policy: to threaten the poor and unemployed with a cutoff of food assistance. On Wednesday, the Agriculture Department announced a toughening of work requirements that 18-to-49-year-old childless adults must meet to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps. Current law limits such people to three months of benefits in a 36-month period unless the individual is working (or engaged in equivalent activity) for at least 80 hours per month. States may waive those rules where jobs are not available and exempt a percentage of individuals who are not work-capable. The Trump rules, in essence, sharply reduce the waivers and exemptions, such that the number of able-bodied adults without dependents on the SNAP rolls, about 2.9 million at present, will fall by 688,000, saving the government $5.5 billion over five years.

Government assistance must be focused on those who need it most, to be sure. It makes sense to adapt poverty programs to new labor-market realities. And the new rule does not affect children and their parents, seniors, people with disabilities or pregnant women. Still, what’s striking is that the Trump proposal comes despite the absence of a glaring mismatch between the number of people in poverty and the number receiving SNAP. In fact, there appears to be a pretty close correspondence between the two: Roughly 38 million people live in poverty and roughly 38 million get SNAP, according to government data. The people affected by the new SNAP rules are among the neediest, with an average income of just 18 percent of the poverty line ($12,490 for individuals), and monthly benefits of about $165.

Also questionable is the means by which the administration is carrying out this change: an executive action that flies in the face of the recently expressed will of Congress. The then-Republican-controlled House passed similar changes to SNAP as part of its version of the 2018 farm bill, only to be rebuffed by the Senate — which voted 68 to 30 to table an amendment by Sens. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) that would have echoed the GOP House bill. Notwithstanding the absence of clear congressional support, the Republican policy goal will be accomplished through the regulatory process, the very same “administrative state” the GOP otherwise abhors for usurping legislative power. We’d say it’s a delicious irony, if only it weren’t so mean-spirited.

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