Conservatives have long sought to make it harder for people to receive food stamps. They almost achieved that goal last year, but a proposal for stricter work requirements was ultimately removed from the final farm bill that passed in December.
In light of that legislative loss for conservatives, the Trump administration is revamping the food stamps program, otherwise known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), to reflect conservative values and ideas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a rule in December that, if enacted, will cause 755,000 people to lose food stamp benefits, according to the federal agency. The proposed rules are currently undergoing a 60-day comment period, which ends on Tuesday. The federal government will then weigh public comments before submitting a final rule.
Meanwhile, new research sheds light on the people at risk of losing food stamps.
According to data released this month from the nonpartisan Mathematica Policy Research, the vast majority of those expected to lose their benefits currently live below the poverty line -- 88 percent make $500 a month or less if they are a single person. Researchers also found that 164,000 of them are between the ages of 18 and 21.
“SNAP serves the poor, but the people likely impacted by this rule are disproportionately poor," says Giridhar Mallya, senior policy officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which worked on the report with Mathematica. "It’s shown to reduce hunger, so hunger will likely increase.”
SNAP's current rules require nondisabled, childless adults to work or participate in job training for at least 20 hours a week if they receive food assistance for more than three months in a three-year period. States can request exemptions from this rule if they are struggling with high unemployment, and many have. The USDA's new policy will make it harder for states to qualify for those exemptions.
Alaska, Louisiana, Nevada and New Mexico currently exempt their childless population from work requirements; 29 states have a partial waiver; and 17 have no waiver at all, according to Mathematica.
The New Rules
Under the current rules, states can receive waivers if they prove part of their state has an unemployment rate of 20 percent above the national average. States will often clump together certain areas that are struggling and have an unemployment rate, once combined, of 20 percent above the national average.
Taking an exemption was especially popular in the years following the Great Recession. In fact, Delaware is the only state that hasn't sought a waiver of this kind since 2010. But the USDA's new rules will restrict cities and counties from banding together for this purpose.
Congressional Republicans want to reign in the $4-billion-a-month program, which they say is prone to government waste. Around 40 million Americans receive food assistance. The USDA expects the new rule to save $15 billion over a decade. Democrats, meanwhile, say that these type of exemptions are necessary because counties within states have different employment prospects.
New Mexico officials are debating the best way to prevent coverage losses in the event that it loses its statewide waiver. They are considering two paths: Updating and expanding their employment and training programs, which would cost the state $6 million, or partnering with community organizations that might be able to take on additional caseloads to help people secure jobs or job training.
Either way, the rule is of “huge concern,” says Angela Medrano, deputy director of the state's human services department. “We provide services to 900,000 people, almost half of the state.”
New Mexico has the third-highest poverty rate in the nation, and large swaths of rural area, making it difficult for many residents to comply with a work requirement.
“I worked on the county level, where people would hitchhike to their [government] appointments. There’s inadequate infrastructure. People lack access to phones and internet,” says Karmela Martinez, the acting director of the Income Support Division of the New Mexico Department of Human Services.
Changes to the Carryover Exemption
The USDA's new proposal also modifies the "carryover exemption.” Right now, a state can exempt up to 15 percent of childless adults from the three-months-in-three-years time limit. If they don’t use up that 15 percent, they can roll over the remainder to the next year.
Based on that equation, states had a combined 7.4 million exemptions available during 2018, according to the USDA.
The proposed rule would subject states to a new calculation based on how many exemptions they used in the previous year before allotting them exemptions for the next year, making it harder to roll over.
Human services advocates say it's an unnecessary and harmful change.
“States feel very strongly to have that flexibility to respond to local needs. Also there is not evidence that states are misusing this power,” says Ann Flagg, director of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at the American Public Human Services Association.
Is There Enough Job Training?
At the heart of this debate is the goal of employment, which is harder to achieve in some places than others. How much the government spends on job training is a factor.
According to The Council of State Governments, the federal government allocates around $10 billion to states for job training, technical education and rehabilitative programs -- but some of that goes to larger programs that spend the money on other things. State spending, on the other hand, varies. New Mexico spent around $12 million in 2017, but Washington state spent $59 million -- almost five times as much.
“The success of a work requirement is contingent on the strength of these training programs," says Flagg. "It’s creating a work requirement that lacks adequate funding to create meaningful pathways to work.”
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*CORRECTION: A previous version of this cited the Mathematica Policy Institute, which is actually called Mathematica Policy Research.