Failing to Restrict Food Stamps in the Farm Bill, Trump Takes Another Route

AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue attends a cabinet meeting in the Cabinet Room of the White House. 

Two years into this administration, of this we can be certain: When the president doesn’t get what he wants—legislative wins in, say, immigration or health care—he will turn toward other means to ram his agenda through. Consider the case of food stamps.

When the farm bill finally passed both the House and Senate last week,  the final bill left out House Republicans’ work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly called food stamps), which would have endangered food assistance for millions of people. Not surprisingly, this was a favored provision for President Trump.

The farm bill, instead of, as Trump tweeted, “leav[ing] the WORK REQUIREMENTS FOR FOOD STAMPS PROVISION that the House approved” intact, largely kept to the status quo. Yet as the farm bill made its way to Trump’s desk for his signature, the administration fell back on a proposed rule using administrative discretion to toughen the work requirements that already exist for adults without dependents.

“If at first you don’t succeed,” quips Sarah Reinhardt, food systems and health analyst for the food and environment program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), “try a less democratic option.”

Under the new rule, if enacted after the 60-day public comment period, food assistance will be threatened for hundreds of thousands of adults without dependents living with them if they cannot prove that they are working 80 hours per month. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue refers to this as “encourage[ing] productivity instead of poverty,” which is quite audacious, because the rule will almost certainly encourage poverty, and just poverty.

The current policy restricts food stamp receipt to just three months in a three-year period if adults who are under the age of 50 and who don’t have dependents or a diagnosed disability don’t meet the requisite work test. But when work is scarce, states can request waivers of the SNAP time limit if the unemployment rate in a given area—counties, cities, or statewide—is extremely high. Approximately 755,000 adults who would be affected by the new requirement live in areas that currently have waivers based on high unemployment.

The law permits waivers, but the department has discretion to alter the terms of waivers. And that is what the president directed Perdue to do. 

The proposed rule is 55 pages of complicated and convoluted policy intending to limit the geographic scope of waivers (likely eliminating most waivers entirely), increase the standard used to judge whether an area has high unemployment, as well as limit how long a waiver can be in effect.

Besides restricting which areas can be deemed to suffer from a lack of jobs, the rule makes the waiver process much “more administratively difficult,” according to Reinhardt. “State agency [employees] don’t have a lot of time—anything that would increase the administrative burden would limit state waivers”—and thus would limit food stamps, she says. Many of the provisions of the rule would indeed cost state agencies a lot of money in terms of employee time. Therefore, making waivers more difficult to access might discourage state agencies from applying for waivers even when parts of the state are eligible for them.

According to FNS Administrator Brandon Lipps, if the rule is enacted, the number of areas that have waived food stamp work requirements due to high unemployment would fall by 75 percent. Currently, 44 percent of food stamp recipients who are adults without dependents live in areas with waivers, which could suggest that many low-income people find it difficult to find work, but instead the administration takes this to mean that the work requirement rules aren’t effective enough. With the new waiver criteria, only 11 percent of the population affected by the work rules would live in an area eligible for a waiver.

“This is a public health issue,” Reinhardt says. Far from encouraging work and “productivity,” removing state waivers in areas of high unemployment will lead to increased hunger and its accompanying health problems. She also notes that it is a racial equity issue. For example, cities like New York that are staunchly segregated may have low unemployment overall, but there are marginalized areas of the city where unemployment may be above 20 percent. Those areas won’t be protected from a waiver of the time limit.

As the Prospect has reported extensively in the past, these requirements are based on the premise that low-income people prefer not to work, when the numbers, statistics—the reality—show that it is the nature of low-wage work that inhibits people from meeting work requirements, and as well, from “earning their way out” of poverty in the first place.

Most low-wage jobs feature variable hours and few worker protections, meaning that, lacking job stability, workers may cycle in and out of employment, and thus, cycle on and off the SNAP rolls when they need assistance to feed their families.

When people cannot find work, it is often not because of motivation, but because of other barriers to work. According to a 2015 Ohio Association of Food Banks report on the population affected by the three-month time limit, affected individuals pointed to a lack of access to transportation, limited job skills, health problems, and previous contact with the justice system as obstacles that kept them from stable employment. The affected population is also extremely poor, with an average income of approximately 17 percent of the poverty line. And because they do not have children living with them (though they still may have children to support), they typically are ineligible for other public assistance programs.

And for those areas that will now have limited access to waivers—the very purpose of which is meant to shield people who cannot find work because of reasons beyond their control—you can add “extremely high unemployment” to the list.

“If you’re forcing people to find a job quickly, and not give [states] the option to [use] these waivers,” explains Reinhardt, “then you’re saying ‘if there’s no job for your skill set, then you’re out of luck, and we’re going to take away your ability to put food on the table.’”

Many conservative-led states, such as Kansas and Arkansas, had already punitively barred their human services agencies from requesting waivers of the three-month time limit. But 4 other states and the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, and Guam have statewide waivers approved and in effect, and 29 have partial waivers that cover certain counties and cities.

Most of these states will lose their ability to shield a very poor population from losing food aid altogether. It’s important to note that the bulk of food aid in the U.S. is provided by nutrition assistance programs like SNAP—community food banks will not have the resources to feed an influx of hundreds of thousands more people.

As the proposed rule was posted, Perdue published an op-ed in USA Today singing its praises, littering the article with words like “dignity of work” and “self-sufficiency” and claiming that the rule will “reward more Americans with the virtue of work,” even though the communities that will be affected live in areas—by definition of the waivers!—where jobs are hard to find. It’s not as if the rule contains funding to link all SNAP recipients to jobs or job training.

Just as publishing this rule on the same day he signs the farm bill is a way for Trump to save face on the failure of House Republicans to win work requirements, Perdue’s words are a sleight of hand to mask the real harm that will be inflicted on communities should this rule be enacted.

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