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The Trump administration said Wednesday it had finalized a new rule tightening work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a move that Maine said could affect 1,300 people in the state.
It arrives as part of a broader effort to limit access to the federal safety net, the first of three such measures in the works. The U.S. Department of Agriculture initially estimated that up to 750,000 individuals would be dropped from SNAP if the proposal took effect. In a call with reporters on Wednesday, the USDA adjusted that to 688,000.
Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents cannot receive SNAP benefits for more than three months during a three-year period, unless they’re working or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month.
States can waive this time limit to ensure access to food stamps during the ups and downs of reentering the workforce. The new rule, which is set to take effect April 1, 2020, will tighten the criteria for states applying for such waivers.
Officials say that about 7 percent of the individuals on SNAP are considered able-bodied adults without dependents and that the rule will save the government $5.5 billion over five years.
“Americans are generous people,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told reporters on the call. “This is about restoring the original intent of food stamps … moving more able-bodied Americans to self sufficiency.”
Perdue cited a booming economy and an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent as a main reason for tightening states’ waivers, saying “there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”
Brandon Lipps, the USDA deputy under secretary for food nutrition and consumer services, told reporters that the new rule does not affect children, parents or the elderly, but is restricted to individuals 18 to 49 without dependents. He said that the USDA estimates 74 percent of the able-bodied adults without dependents are not working.
After the recession of 2008 and 2009, Maine won the ability to waive work requirements for this population, but it reinstated them in 2014 under former Gov. Paul LePage, a Republican. In September, the administration of Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat, was granted a partial waiver of those requirements in rural areas with relatively high unemployment rates.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services said in a statement that 1,300 people could be affected by the change, though their benefits will be paid for the rest of 2019 using existing federal resources. The department said the change “threatens access to nutritious food for people who live in rural areas with economic and employment challenges.”
Maine’s U.S. senators, Susan Collins and independent Angus King, who caucuses with Democrats, opposed the proposed changes in a March letter to Perdue alongside 45 other senators. Collins was one of only two Republican senators to sign it.
In a Wednesday statement, Collins said the move “threatens to increase food insecurity among those who are struggling with addiction or facing other barriers to employment.” King said he “will keep pushing to reverse this harmful rule.” Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat from the 1st District, said it will “will only increase food insecurity in Maine and across the country.”
The other two proposed rule changes, not yet final, aim to cap deductions for utility allowance and to limit access to SNAP for working poor families.
A study by the Urban Institute found the combined impact of these rules would cut 3.7 million people from SNAP in an average month, including nearly 17,000 Mainers. Millions more would experience reductions in monthly benefits and 982,000 students would lose automatic access to free or reduced price school meals.
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.