The Trump administration has put out a call for ideas on how to get people on food stamps back to work, but anti-hunger advocates fear it’s a first step toward a new rule that would kick thousands of unemployed people out of the program.
Federal law prohibits unemployed adults aged 18 to 49 who are not disabled or raising minor children from receiving assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for more than three months over a three-year period.
To keep the benefit, these adults must work at least 20 hours a week, participate in a state work-training program or volunteer. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) said about 3.8 million of the 42 million people who participate in SNAP are able-bodied adults without dependents.
But a state can apply to have the federal government waive the work requirement if it can show there aren’t enough jobs in the area.
Those waivers are an issue for the USDA. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said too many states have asked to waive the work requirement, “abdicating their responsibility to move participants to self-sufficiency.”
“Past decisions may have been the easy short-term choice, but USDA policies must change if they contribute to a long-term failure for many SNAP participants and their families,” Perdue said in a statement last month.
Five states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands have statewide waivers now, while 28 states have waivers for certain areas, according to the USDA’s website.
In an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking late last month, the USDA signaled that it’s looking to put new restrictions on waiver eligibility.
Currently, states can qualify for a waiver if an area has an average 12-month unemployment rate of more than 10 percent or the state can show it does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment.
Supporters of changing the waiver rules say stricter requirements will push people back into the workforce.
“We can totally understand in a bad economy or in certain isolated cases someone might need an exception … however, today we have 6 million open jobs, we’re approaching all-time low unemployment and employers are having a hard time filling jobs,” said Sam Adolphsen, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.
“Now is not the time to be waiving the work requirement.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in January that the national unemployment rate held at 4.1 percent for the fourth consecutive month, the lowest it’s been since December 2000.
But anti-hunger groups argue there’s a misconception that work-capable adults are just freeloading off the government.
“No one is living comfortably on this,” said Josh Protas, vice president of public policy at Mazon.
According to the USDA, the average monthly benefit for an able-bodied adult without dependents is $163.
Anti-hunger advocates argue most of these adults want to work, but face significant barriers to employment, like a lack of education or a criminal record.
Protas said some of them are working, but can’t get the required 20 hours a week at their low-wage job to continue to qualify for assistance.
Though work training would keep them in the program, Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, said states are not required to offer a job or training program to every individual and don’t receive enough funds through SNAP to do so.
Rep. Alma Adams (D-N.C.) offered a bill last April to strengthen the food stamp program and exempt able-bodied adults without dependents from the work requirement if their state can’t provide them with a slot in a SNAP employment or training program.
But the measure is unlikely to get enough support from Republicans to pass the House, since the GOP has made work requirements for SNAP a policy priority.
President Trump specifically proposed limiting the use of state waivers to the work requirement in his 2018 budget.
Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.), who introduced legislation last March to eliminate the authority of the Agriculture secretary to grant waivers to the work requirement, told The Hill on Wednesday that SNAP now discourages people from working.
“Particularly in today’s economy, the idea that you should have to work to get food stamps seems to be pretty much common sense,” he said.
Grothman said it isn’t a funding issue.
“To me it’s more of a moral thing,” he said. “We don’t want to encourage people to behave improperly.”
In a statement to The Hill, a USDA spokesperson said the agency’s goal is to move individuals from SNAP back to the workforce as the best long-term solution to poverty.
“That said, public input is an important part of finding the best approaches, and USDA will use the information gathered to consider options, including potential rulemaking, to help able-bodied SNAP participants move out of poverty in a manner that is consistent with the structure and intent of the program,” they said.