The proposed rule written by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would tighten existing work requirements on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps, by limiting states’ ability to create waivers for areas that face high unemployment rates or a labor surplus.
The USDA rule change pertains to people between the ages of 18 and 49 who are childless and not disabled. Currently, this group is required to work at least 20 hours a week for more than three months over a 36-month period, but some states create waivers for certain areas because of various labor factors.
Those waivers often helped people who are severely economically disadvantaged, according to a study released Thursday by Mathematica Policy Research and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Ninety-seven percent of the SNAP participants who would be affected live in poverty, and 88 percent have household incomes at or below 50 percent of the poverty level or less than $600 a month — a much larger portion than the overall average.
Almost 80 percent live alone, the study said, and the average SNAP benefit equaled $181 per person every month.
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“States are saying they have a particular understanding of what’s happening in these communities that they get waivers for, but the proposed rule puts stricter limits on that,” said Giridhar Mallya, senior policy officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. “There may be people who have limited education and skills, and there are others in places without a lot of work that may want to and are able to work but are just unable to find employment.”
Mallya said that it is within these details and individual situations that an image of how this Trump administration rule could “affect real people in real places” becomes clearer.
But approximately 755,000 people across the country would not meet the new work requirements and lose eligibility in three months, according to the USDA’s own estimates, and various states would see different degrees of impact. The brunt of the losses would be felt by 11 states: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Tennessee and Washington.
The Trump administration maintains that these SNAP beneficiaries are taking advantage of the government program and can be removed from the rolls because they should be able to work.
“At USDA, our informal motto is ‘Do Right and Feed Everyone,’” Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue wrote in a USA Today column about the rule change. “With these proposed improvements, we will ‘do right’ by the taxpayers and restore the dignity of work to the able-bodied who receive SNAP benefits. And, we will ‘feed everyone’ by ensuring the health and stability of SNAP for those who truly need it.”
The Trump administration and House Republicans first attempted to get a similar rule passed through the Farm Bill at the end of 2018. None of those changes were included in the final legislation that was passed.
Craig Gundersen, an agricultural and consumer economics professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has studied the program for more than two decades, maintains that using SNAP to compel people to work is fundamentally opposed to the mission of the program, which is to help feed the 12 percent of American households that the USDA says face food insecurity.
Gundersen said that it's incorrect to think that these SNAP recipients are taking advantage of the system.
"It’s not like you have people who are college educated who previously had good jobs and are deciding to go on these programs," Gundersen said. "These individuals are facing a lot of other issues, and a lot of these people could be considered disabled."
But perception of the program has changed over the years, Gundersen explained. SNAP once enjoyed support on both sides of the aisle, and it worked well when it was left alone.
“SNAP is an anti-hunger program — full stop,” he said. “It’s not supposed to encourage people to work. It’s supposed to end hunger in our country, and it does a fantastic job at that. Why bring work into this?”
Phil McCausland is an NBC News reporter focused on the rural-urban divide.