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December 6, 2019

Nearly 700,000 adults could lose food stamps under new rule

Daily Briefing

    The Trump administration on Wednesday finalized a rule that will strengthen work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—a move that experts say could eliminate SNAP benefits for 688,000 adults.

    The rule, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed late last year, imposes new guidelines restricting when states can waive SNAP work requirements for able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents.

    Currently, able-bodied adults without dependents are required to participate in an education or training program or work for at least 80 hours per month to remain eligible for SNAP benefits. Individuals who don't meet those requirements can receive SNAP benefits for only three months over a three-year period.

    Previously, states could seek waivers to those requirements if there were not enough jobs available in the area or if the average unemployment rate for 24 months was at least 20% above the national average. According to NBC News, the national unemployment rate was 3.6% in October.

    But under the new rule, which takes effect April 1, 2020, states will only be able to waive those requirements for people in areas that have at least a 6% unemployment rate.

    USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said, "States are seeking waivers for wide swaths of their population, and millions of people who could work are continuing to receive SNAP benefits." He said the final rule is intended to encourage those "able-bodied" adults to work, noting that the economy has improved in recent years.

    USDA estimated that the rule will save the federal government $5.5 billion over five years and remove about 688,000 able-bodied adults without dependents from SNAP.

    Move sparks outcry

    Some observers and stakeholders applauded the proposed rule, saying it would help lift people out of poverty. 

    For instance, Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Texas), ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, praised the final rule for encouraging those who are able to work to do so, while protecting SNAP benefits for others. "[F]or those whose situations allow it, employment is a chance to regain dignity and purpose, and contribute to our economy and society," he said.

    However, others strongly oppose the move, and according to NPR, legal challenges could be filed to stop the rule from taking effect.

    Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.)—the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry—noted that Congress last year rejected a similar amendment when considering the Farm Bill.

    "There's a reason Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly rejected this callous proposal in the Farm Bill and instead focused on bipartisan job training opportunities that actually help families find good paying jobs," Stabenow said.

    James Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center, said, "The final rule would cause serious harm to individuals, communities, and the nation while doing nothing to improve the health and employment of those impacted by the rule." He added, "[T]he rule would harm the economy, grocery retailers, agricultural producers, and communities by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur local economic activity."

    Meanwhile, Stacy Dean, the food assistance policy vice president at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, noted that the final rule targets vulnerable residents. "The policy targets very poor people struggling to work—some of whom are homeless or living with health conditions," Dean said. "Taking away basic food assistance from these individuals will only increase hardship and hunger, while doing nothing to help them find steady full-time work" (Fessler/Treisman, NPR, 12/4; Polansek, Reuters, 12/4; McCausland, NBC News, 12/4; Fadulu, New York Times, 12/4).

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