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Trump administration moves to impose stricter work requirements for food stamps

Democrats blasted the plan as executive overreach, saying that any changes to the SNAP program need to go through Congress.
Image: Sonny Perdue
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue at a Cabinet meeting on Aug. 16, 2018.Andrew Harnik / AP

President Donald Trump is attempting to do through executive action what Congress would not: tighten work requirements for the millions of Americans who receive food stamps.

The Department of Agriculture, which runs the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program commonly referred to as food stamps, unveiled a proposed new rule at Trump's direction on Thursday that restricts states' ability to waive existing work requirements in areas where unemployment rates are higher than the national rate.

The proposed change comes as the president is poised to sign a much-negotiated farm bill that ultimately included no significant changes to food stamps despite backing from the White House.

Under federal law, able-bodied adults without dependents are restricted to three months of benefits within a 36-month period unless they work at least 80 hours per month or participate in certain educational or job-training activities. But current USDA regulations allow for states to waive an existing work requirement if the area's unemployment rate is 20 percent higher than the national rate. The new rule allows for states to only waive that requirement in areas where the unemployment rate is above 7 percent — nearly double the current national unemployment rate.

About 755,000 recipients who qualified for the existing waiver now stand to lose assistance, The Washington Post reported.

"We need American workers and we want to restore the dignity of work for the American worker," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Bloomberg TV Thursday morning.

Trump is set to sign an $867 billion farm bill Thursday afternoon that doesn't include significant changes to SNAP. But that wasn't for lack of trying — House bills backed by the president included significant changes to the federal food assistance program, including tougher work requirements.

But none of those measures made it into the final version of the bill ultimately passed by both chambers of Congress after months of back-and-forth. Trump used his executive authority to direct the USDA to make the changes.

In a release announcing the new rule, the USDA said that "moving people to work is common-sense policy, particularly at a time when the unemployment rate is at a generational low."

The rule applies to nondisabled people between the ages of 18 and 49 who do not have any dependents. The elderly, disabled and pregnant women are not subjected to the change, the USDA said.

Speaking at a signing ceremony for the farm bill, Trump said "able-bodied adults without dependents will" now "have to work or look for work to keep their food stamps."

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said such a change would need to be authored by Congress, not the executive branch.

"This regulation blatantly ignores the bipartisan Farm Bill that the President is signing today and disregards over 20 years of history giving states flexibility to request waivers based on local job conditions," she said in a statement. "I expect the rule will face significant opposition and legal challenges. Administrative changes should not be driven by ideology. I do not support unilateral and unjustified changes that would take food away from families."

Robert Greenstein, president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, also condemned the change.

"Contrary to expected administration rhetoric about helping people work, the proposal’s overwhelming impact will be to cut impoverished people off assistance and increase hardship substantially, rather than raising employment or helping people find jobs," he said.