The USDA proposed a rule focused on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program's (SNAP) waiver program, which lets states apply for exceptions to work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents, often referred to as ABAWDs, in areas of high unemployment. These changes come just days after Congress passed a bipartisan farm bill that left SNAP as is, much to the chagrin of certain House conservatives.
After a 60-day public comment period, the new rule would require state governors to approve waivers as opposed to just the USDA, eliminate statewide waivers and instead approve waivers only for cities or counties with unemployment rates of 7% or higher. Additionally, though states can currently extend benefits to 12% of ABAWD applicants and roll over unused portions of that percentage, the new rule erases that option, reported USAToday.
Under existing rules, adults ages 18 to 49 must work or participate in job training programs for at least 20 hours per week, or 80 hours per month, to be on SNAP rolls for more than three months in a three-year time period. About 3.8 million ABAWDs receive SNAP benefits, but 2.8 million don’t work, according to the USDA. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said these changes will save taxpayers $15 billion over 10 years.
Revamping SNAP has long been a goal of conservatives, and House Republicans tried to tighten work requirements in its earlier version of the farm bill. That legislation would have raised the age of able-bodied adults tied to work requirements from 49 to 59 and added parents with children older than 6 to adhere to the same rules. (Currently any parent is exempt from work requirements.) It would have also tied up SNAP eligibility with other federal poverty programs. But none of that happened, as both houses of Congress approved the 2018 farm bill just last week without significant changes to SNAP.
Critics of the USDA’s new rule say the agency is undermining the bipartisan legislation, signed by the president yesterday. Proponents say it paves a way for self-sufficiency, especially in a “booming economy,” as Rep. K. Michael Conway noted in a statement.
The rule will likely affect less than 3 million of the 42 million Americans who use SNAP benefits every year. The farm bill actually opened up avenues and funding for grocers to promote SNAP-eligible products. Recent efforts to improve online ordering for SNAP customers, as Walmart has pursued, should continue without many barriers.
SNAP helps about 42 million Americans every year, a majority of them either elderly, disabled or under the age of 18. Enrollment did hit record highs in the years following the recession, as unemployment soared to nearly 10% in April of 2010, per the USDA’s own statement. The Obama administration allowed states to request waivers a bit more freely to alleviate hunger in tough times: 45 states applied for and received statewide waivers in 2013, and the USDA granted another six waivers for specific areas. Since then, SNAP enrollment has dropped from its 2013 peak of 47.6 million – when the national unemployment rate still hit above 7% – to under 40 million this year.
In a media briefing, Secretary Perdue said encouraging people to work was a “common-sense policy” with unemployment at its lowest point since 1969. “Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream,” he added. The USDA claims states have taken advantage of these waivers, but the drop in numbers backed up by the agency’s own data doesn’t correlate.
For 2019, only 7 states and U.S. territories have received statewide waivers for work requirements for ABAWDs: Alaska, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico and D.C., plus Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Twenty-nine states will have waivers for certain areas, while 17 won’t have any waivers at all, including – Oklahoma, Alabama and Arkansas – three of the 10 states with the highest poverty rates, according to census bureau data.
The Union of Concerned Scientists also notes that the proposed changes might actually burden states with additional administrative costs. Retailers, on the other hand, have generally emerged victorious from the most recent farm bill debates, as yesterday’s signed legislation removed card-processing fees set in place by the 2014 bill. Superstores such as Walmart redeem more than half of SNAP benefits, per the Center of Budget Policies and Priorities, while supermarkets account for 30% and grocery for 11%.