Hundreds of thousands of Americans could lose access to food benefits under a policy change the Trump administration finalized on Wednesday.
Republicans call it a “work requirement,” but most people affected by the change will simply lose their food benefits.
It’s the first of three big changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program the Trump administration is pursuing through regulation after Congress rejected significant cuts last year. Together, the changes would reduce enrollment by more than 3 million. More than 36 million Americans in 18 million households currently receive monthly SNAP benefits on debit cards that can be used for food in grocery stores.
The rule finalized Wednesday takes away state flexibility to waive a three-month time limit for SNAP beneficiaries who aren’t elderly and who don’t have children or disabilities, or about 7% of recipients.
The Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, estimates that about 688,000 fewer Americans will receive benefits in 2021 under the regulation. That’s about two-thirds of the people who are subjected to the new work requirement and almost 2% of projected enrollment.
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue suggested in a statement that the people targeted by the regulation spend too much time soaking up benefits.
“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” Perdue said.
States can waive the work requirement for able-bodied adults without dependents in areas with above-average unemployment rates. Since the national rate has been below 5% for several years, Republicans have complained that too many areas have waivers, and that food benefits stop people from taking low-paying jobs.
Perdue said that “in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work.”
A key part of the rule disallows states to waive the work requirement unless the local jobless rate is at least 6%. (A draft version of the regulation set the target at 7%, which was the level House Republicans had proposed in their version of the 2018 farm bill.) The requirement allows able-bodied adults only three months of benefits in a three-year period unless they prove to the state government they work at least 20 hours per week.
Of the SNAP recipients affected by the new regulation, 97% live in poverty and 81% live alone, according to an analysis published in March by Mathematica Policy Research.
The rule is set to take effect next April. Democrats in Congress have already said they’ll sue to block the regulation, and anti-hunger advocacy groups have said they’ll sue as well.
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) said it is rich that the rule landed during the holiday season, when people may have tighter budgets. “The USDA is the Grinch that stole Christmas,” she said. “Shame on them.”
In a civil rights analysis, the USDA said the rule has “the potential for disparately impacting certain protected groups due to factors affecting rates of employment of members of these groups,” but that “mitigation strategies” would reduce the impact.
This article has been updated to note the rule was finalized Wednesday.