WASHINGTON — Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Dec. 20 unveiled a proposed rule aimed at limiting the use by states of waivers allowing them to exempt certain able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) from meeting work requirements to receive benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Mr. Perdue announced the proposed rule just hours before President Donald Trump was to sign the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, the farm bill, into law. Mr. Trump had threatened to veto any farm legislation that didn’t include the expanded work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries as contained in the House farm bill. But the House SNAP revisions had no Democratic support and were not included in the final compromise bill overwhelmingly passed by both the Senate and House of Representatives on Dec. 13.
In the leadup to the farm bill votes, Mr. Perdue assured House conservatives and Mr. Trump that the U.S. Department of Agriculture, on its own authority, could impose certain reforms on SNAP. This helped ensure the large majorities that approved the farm bill while giving the president a way to sign the legislation while asserting his administration was tackling SNAP reform on another front.
Mr. Perdue pointed to what he said was “out-of-control flexibility in SNAP” that necessitated his proposed reforms.
“Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream,” Mr. Perdue said. “As we make benefits available to those who truly need them, we must also encourage participants to take proactive steps toward self-sufficiency. Moving people to work is common-sense policy, particularly at a time when the unemployment rate is at a generational low.”
The proposed rule relates to able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49. The rule would not apply to the elderly, the disabled or pregnant women.
Under current SNAP requirements, ABAWDs must work or participate in an employment program for at least 20 hours a week to continue to receive benefits for more than three months over a 36-month period. But states may request to waive the time limit in areas with an unemployment rate above 10% or where there are not sufficient jobs, which current regulations primarily define as an unemployment rate 20% above the national average.
The U.S.D.A. said that in 2016 there were 3.8 million individual ABAWDs on the SNAP rolls, with 2.8 million (or about 74%) of them not working.
The U.S.D.A. indicated its proposal would help to ensure that work provisions are waived only when necessary. The proposed rule would eliminate state-wide waivers unless the state qualifies for extended unemployment benefits. Additionally, a request for a waiver would require full endorsement by the state government.
The proposed rule would limit waivers for larger geographic areas within states that may include sections with sufficient available jobs, i.e. waivers would become more localized. Waivers would continue to be allowed in local areas with high unemployment relative to the national average but only when the local unemployment rate is at least 7%.
The proposed rule also would limit the duration of waivers to ensure that they reflect current economic condition, and it would retain the statutory waiver standard — unemployment above 10% for a recent 12-month period.
The U.S.D.A. suggested the proposed rule may result in a 75% reduction in area currently covered by waivers with an estimated savings of $15 billion over 10 years.
Additionally, the U.S.D.A. pointed out under current law, states receive exemptions from time limits for a portion of their caseload that they may use to extend eligibility for a limited number of ABAWDs. States have discretion to use or not to use the exemptions available to them in a given year. Current regulations allow states to accumulate these exemptions year after year. If states do not use the exemptions they have earned, it leads to a large buildup of exemptions.
The proposed rule would stop these exemptions from carrying over and accumulating.
Representative K. Michael Conaway of Texas, outgoing chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture, praised the proposed rule.
“This is an issue we took head-on in the House-passed farm bill, creating a roadmap for states to more effectively engage ABAWDs in this booming economy,” Mr. Conaway said. “Paired with the farm bill’s modernized E&T programming and increased investment, this proposed rule will allow ABAWDs to seek new opportunities and achieve their goals. I applaud the proposed rule and proudly stand with the Trump administration in demonstrating the importance of state accountability and recipient success.”
A contrary view was voiced by James D. Weill, president, Food Research & Action Center, who charged the Trump administration was politicizing at the state level the waiver process as established by Congress in current law.
“Its action flies in the face of congressional intent, coming just days after Congress passed a new farm bill that left the current area waiver provisions in place,” he said. “The administration’s release of its proposed rule sends struggling people a cruel message this holiday season — not one of hope and goodwill, but one of greater hunger and hardship if the rule is adopted. “
The U.S.D.A. encouraged all interested parties to provide input on the proposed rule in coming days. The comment period will be open for 60 days after the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register.