On Friday, the Trump administration officially released a proposed rule that would put 755,000 Americans’ food assistance in jeopardy over three years, according to its own analysis.
The rule focuses on “able bodied adults without dependents” from ages 18 to 49 who need food assistance and would essentially limit the flexibility states have to determine residents’ needs.
The Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) proposal says the rule is “consistent with the administration’s focus on fostering self-sufficiency.”
In December, President Donald Trump’s effort to strip millions of people of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits through the Farm Bill failed. But Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue vowed that the administration would find another path to put limits on food assistance.
“Through regulation we’ll be able to please those conservatives who expected more work requirements in the Farm Bill, as I did, as President Trump did,” Perdue said at the time.
Able bodied adults without dependents, frequently referred to as ABAWDs, are typically subject to a three-month time period during which they have to get a job logging 20 hours a week for an average of 80 hours a month to receive SNAP benefits. If they don’t, they will be kicked off the program — unless they can benefit from waivers states can request to waive this time limit. States can waive the three-month requirement when the unemployment rate is higher than 10 percent or 20 percent above the national average in certain regions of the country.
The most worrisome aspect of the Trump administration’s proposed rule is that the USDA wants to further restrict the waivers so fewer people are able to benefit from them, Sarah Reinhardt, food systems and health analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told ThinkProgress. The new rule would restrict those waivers to areas where the unemployment rate is higher than 7 percent.
“When that law was originally implemented, it gave states a lot of flexibility to say, ‘OK, I’m going to use this data set and combine these counties, for example, because I know that there is need there and it makes the most sense. I know people are struggling there,” Reinhardt said. “What the USDA is saying now is that they are raising the bar and making their standards more difficult to meet. They are tweaking the types of data you can use and what they essentially want to do is set a minimum threshold for unemployment. So even if your unemployment locally is twice the national average, if the national average is really low, their argument is it still shouldn’t be enough to qualify you for SNAP benefits –even if there are some extremely distressing economic conditions in that area.”
Reinhardt added that through rule-making, the administration may ultimately be able to achieve restrictions on food assistance without trying to reach a legislative compromise.
“They don’t even have to pretend that in they’re invested in employment and training options because the rule-making process, unlike the Farm Bill, doesn’t require bipartisanship or compromise or votes,” she said. “Secretary Purdue isn’t even pretending that this is a way to provide resources to people in need or find gainful employment. This so-called reform is just a way to take food off of people’s plates.”
Pamela Koch, research associate professor for the program in nutrition at Columbia University’s department of health and behavior studies, said Republicans have taken aim at ABAWDs for a long time to delegitimize people’s food assistance needs because they don’t have young children.
“[ABAWDs] had been basically victimized, and what that has done is basically harm the perception of the general public about who is receiving SNAP and why they are receiving it and that they really need it,” Koch said. “This is damaging because it will ensure people who are already food insecure become more food insecure. This constant harping on [ABAWDS] is just detrimental to having people realize why we have public assistance and why having a food safety net for people of all different age groups is really very important.”
Perdue said the changes will save $15 billion over 10 years and “restores the dignity of work,” but policy experts say there isn’t evidence to show that people not getting food assistance will help them get work or will discourage them from trying to find work. Work requirements in safety net programs aren’t very effective at reducing poverty and in some cases, leave people worse off. And in the long term, experts on food assistance say it will be costly.
“Cutting 755,000 people off the program — we could be dealing with that for years to come,” Reinhardt said of the subsequent public health expenses. “Adults using SNAP tend to make fewer hospital visits, they have lower health care costs annually by about $1,400, mothers using SNAP have a reduced risk of low birth weight babies, and kids who use SNAP see lower rates of obesity as adults.”
She added, “There are all these latent health effects that occur years down the road so when thinking about the health implications of a long-term problem, that is going to add to come back to the government in a really significant way — it’s shortsighted to be cutting benefits off to this number of people.”
After the department receives public comments, which must be sent on or before April 2 to be considered, the USDA will analyze them and respond. Then it will continue to move forward with the rule-making process and publish a final rule. Sometimes parties file lawsuits criticizing the how the administration proceeded with a rule-making and the courts review it to make sure it went through the proper process.
The Trump administration’s dismantling of the social safety net has been progressing at a fast speed this month. The Labor Department recently finished seeking public comments on a rule that encourages states to conduct drug tests for people seeking unemployment insurance, which shames people who need financial assistance, is very expensive, and does not help people with substance use disorders.