The Trump administration is continuing to push for further restrictions on food assistance for poor Americans, even after Congress resoundingly rejected an expansion of work requirements and as evidence mounts that work requirements do not work.
As with other attempts to expand work requirements for state and federal assistance programs — some of which have been thrown out by courts — this proposal prioritizes work over the intent of the underlying program, which in this case is to reduce the number of Americans who go hungry.
Several weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced it was moving ahead with a proposal to tighten work requirements for nondisabled adults without dependents to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits. These people must already work or be registered in an educational or training program in order to access SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, for more than three months during a three-year period.
States had been given the opportunity to seek waivers from enforcing the program’s existing work requirements in places with high unemployment rates. Thirty-six states and territories have waivers. Maine does not. In January 2015, then-Gov. Paul LePage instituted work requirements for SNAP assistance. Within three months, 80 percent of those subject to these requirements lost food assistance. A study conducted one year later by the governor’s Office of Policy and Management found that only 4 percent of those who lost food assistance found employment by the end of 2015. The rest remained unemployed at the end of the year with neither wages nor food assistance.
The USDA is now proposing Maine-style requirements nationwide, even though Congress resisted that approach when it passed the Farm Bill late last year.
“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a December press release about the proposal. “That is the commitment behind SNAP. But like other federal welfare programs, it was never intended to be a way of life.”
The USDA proposal is “intended to move more able-bodied recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to self-sufficiency through the dignity of work,” the release stated.
Although these are common talking points for those who want to reduce government benefits, welfare is not a way of life for most beneficiaries of these benefits, and most SNAP recipients are already working.
Overall, more than half of adult nondisabled, nonelderly SNAP recipients worked during the month they received benefits and three-quarters worked during the year in which they received benefits, according to an analysis by the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
The numbers are even higher for households with children, with 87 percent working during the year and 65 percent during the month when benefits were received.
Many SNAP recipients work low-paying jobs with limited benefits. They are also more likely to frequently change jobs and to experience periods of unemployment.
As a result, for many participating in the program, the help is temporary and short-term. Nearly a third of SNAP beneficiaries participate in the program for less than a year, according to a 2015 report from the US Census Bureau. More than half participated for less than three years.
Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King are among a group of 47 senators who have written to Perdue to ask him to withdraw the rule change. Collins is one of only two Republicans who signed the letter.
“This proposal ignores the intent of Congress, would worsen hunger in this country, and would do nothing to help increase stable, long-term employment or move individuals to self-sufficiency,” the senators wrote in their March 28 letter. “We urge you to immediately withdraw this proposed rule.”
Rep. Chellie Pingree sent her own letter to Perdue saying the proposed rule is “misguided and ignores the complexities of food insecurity.” She also signed onto a letter with 100 other House members and has co-sponsored legislation to disallow work requirements like these.
The concern from Congress is warranted. Eliminating this waiver takes a tool away from states that could be used to help poor Americans weather the next economic downturn.