Trump administration to curb states’ control of food aid

The Trump administration is set to tighten work requirements for recipients of federal food aid, potentially rendering hundreds of thousands of people ineligible for the program by mid-2020.

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The administration said Wednesday that it had completed a new rule curbing states’ ability to shield adults without dependents from federal work requirements tied to receiving assistance through the program formerly administered via food stamps. Officials say the rule, which takes effect April 1, 2020, will save the government billions of dollars and encourage more people to work at a time when jobless rates are near a 50-year low.

The rule is the first to take effect among several Trump administration proposals to restrict access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides aid to 36.4 million people. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, separately has proposed tightening eligibility requirements for low-income households and changing how utility costs factor into eligibility.

“This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans reenter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue.

Critics, including Democratic members of Congress, have said the Trump administration’s efforts deepen hardships for poor families and circumvent congressional authority over government assistance programs.

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“Putting up barriers to food assistance will not incentivize or equip people with what they need to seek and maintain work,” wrote representatives for Oxfam America, a poverty relief group, in a 2018 letter opposing the proposed tighter work requirements.

For able-bodied adults without dependents, U.S. law limits SNAP benefits to three months, unless recipients are working or in training for 20 hours a week. States can waive those limits in areas where unemployment runs 20 percent above the national rate, which was 3.6 percent in October.

The new rule requires the unemployment rate to be 6 percent or higher for states to issue such waivers. The rule also curbs the amount of discretionary exemptions from federal work requirements that states can issue.

Despite high employment, groups working against poverty warn that many jobs don’t pay enough or offer enough hours for employees to make ends meet, and that three months isn’t enough time for adults to get their financial footing before benefits end.

Able-bodied adults without dependents in 2018 represented about 2.9 million people, or 7.3 percent of all SNAP recipients, according to the USDA. About three-quarters weren’t employed, and on average each received $161 a month in benefits under the program.

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The USDA estimates that the new rule will affect about 1.1 million people and that 223,000 might no longer get benefits after it takes effect. The USDA projects it will save the government $12.8 billion over 10 years following implementation.