Trump administration wants to toughen food stamp work requirements

Nearly 700,000 people living in the five-county Philadelphia region use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits known as food stamps. (Bigstock/Style-Photographs)

Nearly 700,000 people living in the five-county Philadelphia region use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits known as food stamps. (Bigstock/Style-Photographs)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to change the conditions for excluding certain food stamp recipients from the program’s work requirements. Elected officials and advocates in Pennsylvania say the proposal would hurt the state’s poorest residents – potentially tens of thousands of them.

“It’s incredibly inequitable,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director for the Coalition Against Hunger, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.

SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program commonly referred to as food stamps, requires single, able-bodied adults without children to work at least 20 hours a week if they want to keep their benefits year-round.

Without those hours, they can only get help for three months of benefits every three years, unless their city or county gets a waiver from the state.

At the direction of the Trump administration, the USDA is proposing a new rule that would make it harder for cities and counties to get that waiver. If the unemployment rate is low no waivers would be allowed.

If adopted, only areas with an unemployment rate of seven percent or higher would qualify for a waiver from the state Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP benefits.

“Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue in a statement. “As we make benefits available to those who truly need them, we must also encourage participants to take proactive steps toward self-sufficiency.”

Released Thursday, the new rule only applies to single adults who are 18 to 49. It would not apply to the elderly, or people who are disabled or pregnant.

The Trump administration projects the proposal would save taxpayers $15 billion over 10 years.

A public comment period will be completed before the new rule would be adopted

Mark Price, a labor economist with the Keystone Research Center, called the proposed rule “foolish.” Low unemployment, he said, does not mean people are not struggling to put food on the table.

“The reality is, when you look out across Pennsylvania, there are lots of people who are what we would define as underemployed. That is, they have jobs, but they’re part-time. They can’t get enough hours. They want full-time work, they can’t find a full-time job,” said Price.

“This does nothing to expand employment opportunity and does nothing to encourage people to work,” he added.

None of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties currently has a seven percent unemployment rate, according to federal labor statistics.

As of October 2018, the latest data, Philadelphia County had the highest unemployment rate at 5.2 percent.

Alex Halper, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry, said the USDA’s proposal could help companies across the Commonwealth because there’s a worker shortage, and the new rule would push more people into the workforce.

“I think it’s likely, within this population, there’s a tremendous talent pool that would greatly benefit Pennsylvania’s economy and also benefit themselves getting into the workforce,” said Halper.

Many food stamp recipients, particularly those covered by state waivers, do not have a college education or specialized job training.

The USDA released the proposed rule the same day President Trump signed into law the latest version of the farm bill, which Congress passed last week without the stricter work requirements for food stamp recipients pushed by House Republicans.

The move drew criticism, including from Democratic lawmakers who helped negotiate the new farm bill, in effect for the next five years.

“They’re trying to achieve by way of administrative action what they couldn’t achieve by law,” said U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), who sits on the House Agriculture Committee.

The House version of the farm bill made it mandatory for most adults between 18 and 59 to have a part-time job or participate in a workforce training program for at least 20 hours a week to remain eligible for food stamps.

If passed, recipients would have had one month to become compliant, and missing the mark for even on week would result in a loss of benefits, typically $150 to $185 a month for an individual.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.