The Trump administration on Wednesday announced its final rule to tighten work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps), a change that is projected to end benefits for 688,000 people.
In a press call on Wednesday morning, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said the change will “restore the original intent of food stamps” by pushing more adults into the workforce. The new rule impacts “able-bodied” adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents, a group that represents about 7 percent of total SNAP recipients. This is the final version of a proposal that was first announced last December.
Unemployed adults are typically allowed to receive SNAP benefits for only three months in any three-year period. However, states have made broad use of waivers that allow people to stay in the program for longer in areas with high unemployment. The new rule tightens the requirements for waiver applications, meaning fewer areas will qualify for exemptions to the three-month rule, effectively expanding work requirements. We covered the granular details here.
House Republicans unsuccessfully pushed for stricter work requirements during the 2018 farm bill negotiations. The Trump administration announced this proposal around the same time the president signed the new legislation. The rule change does not require congressional approval, and has been seen as a consolation prize for House Republicans.
This rule is just one of three proposed changes to SNAP the administration has introduced in the last year. Over the summer, the Department of Agriculture announced plans to eliminate broad-based categorical eligibility, a change that would make it significantly harder for people to qualify—it would boot an estimated 3.1 million people from the program. And in October, the agency proposed a cap on income deductions for utilities, a change that would make an additional 8,000 households ineligible for SNAP.
Back in April, we investigated the impact of expanded work requirements in Wisconsin, where the state government rolled out strict eligibility rules in 2015. Many people simply dropped out of SNAP when the state began requiring that they work for 20 hours per week to continue receiving benefits. The people who did enroll in the state’s welfare-to-work program didn’t fare much better: We found that one of the contractors hired to manage the transition only found jobs for roughly a third of participants. The job training and placement program ultimately cost taxpayers $283 per participant per month, more than double the payout to the average SNAP recipient.
Further, our investigation found that the state of Wisconsin did not clearly communicate the new work requirements to enrollees. Many lost their benefits because they simply didn’t receive phone calls and letters explaining the changes to SNAP eligibility. A former social worker tasked with signing beneficiaries up for the welfare-to-work program said many of them thought he was a scammer. Even people who did enroll in the program found it difficult to prove they were participating for the mandatory 20 hours per week, and some lost benefits because overworked case managers failed to submit accurate paperwork.
Now that stricter work requirements are set to roll out nationwide, it’s unclear whether the government will provide additional support for job placement programs to help people remain eligible for SNAP. Ultimately, the issues uncovered in Wisconsin may be repeated across the country.
The new rule expanding work requirements is scheduled to take effect on April 1, 2020. It’s expected to face legal challenges.