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By Suzy Khimm

The Trump administration has taken its first step toward imposing stricter work requirements on food stamp recipients.

The USDA began soliciting public input to "promote work and self-sufficiency" in the federal food stamp program on Friday, kicking off the process required to implement changes to the rules.

"Long-term dependency has never been part of the American dream," Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement announcing the agency's move. "USDA's goal is to move individuals and families from SNAP back to the workforce as the best long-term solution to poverty."

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. States, however, can request federal waivers of this time limit — either across the state or in certain local areas — if jobs are scarce or unemployment is high.

The Trump administration indicated that it wants to make it harder for states to be granted such waivers. "Too many states have asked to waive work requirements, abdicating their responsibility to move participants to self-sufficiency," said Perdue.

In its statement, USDA described the proposal that Trump outlined as part of his 2019 budget, which would restrict state waivers of the time limits to individual counties that had 10 percent unemployment over 12 months. The federal government currently uses a broader range of economic measures to determine whether a state should be granted a waiver.

Unlike the more drastic reforms outlined in the budget — like the proposal to replace food stamp benefits with a "Blue Apron-type" box food delivery service — the administration could make it harder for states to receive these waivers without having to rely on Congress.

Anti-poverty advocates warn that such changes would unfairly punish beneficiaries who are already struggling.

"The time limit isn't a finely designed tool to get people back into the workforce — someone working 18 hours a week isn't working 20 hours a week and could get cut off," said Ed Bolen, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a center-left research group.

State waivers are particularly critical during economic downturns, when it becomes harder to find work, and new restrictions could end up punishing individuals in the midst of a recession, Bolen adds.

"When things are bad, and the states are really reeling, and lots of people are losing jobs, you're going to have baked into federal rules restrictions on people being able to get help," he said. "It's short-sighted."

The USDA's latest action is part of a broader push by the Trump administration to tighten the federal safety net.

In January, the Trump administration created a new waiver program allowing states to impose new work requirements on Medicaid recipients, prompting a handful of GOP-led states to apply. The solicitation of public comments is an early step in the formal process to overhaul federal rules on food stamps, which could take many months to complete.

The Trump administration estimates that its new restrictions on the state waivers for food stamps would save $17.8 billion over 10 years, according to the president’s budget.

But more stringent work requirements would also increase the administrative burden on state agencies that screen and track beneficiaries, said Elaine Waxman of the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy think-tank in Washington.

"States have to shoulder administrative costs and more monitoring might mean costs go up," said Waxman. "The conversation is a lot more about requirements and a lot less about work."