Nearly 700k people to lose food stamps as USDA announces work requirement change

Whole Foods grocery store worker Adam Pacheco (L) stacks vegetables while customers shop in the produce section at the Whole Foods grocery story in Ann Arbor, Michigan, March 8, 2012.
Whole Foods grocery store worker Adam Pacheco (L) stacks vegetables while customers shop in the produce section at the Whole Foods grocery story in Ann Arbor, Michigan, March 8, 2012. | REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

Nearly 700,000 people are expected to lose benefits under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, popularly known as food stamps, due to a final rule that imposes stricter requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents, the agency announced Wednesday.

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told reporters on a call that the final rule, which is expected to be fully implemented in 2021, will move more able-bodied food stamp recipients toward self-sufficiency and into employment.

“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch. Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” Secretary Perdue said in his remarks on the final rule which he said was made at the direction of President Donald Trump.

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“Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work. This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”

Able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents are restricted under federal law to three months of benefits within a 36-month period unless they work at least 20 hours a week or participate in certain educational or job-training activities.

Current USDA regulations allow for states to waive the work requirement if the area's unemployment rate is 20 percent higher than the national rate. The new rule will allow states to wave the work requirement only in areas where the unemployment rate is above 7 percent.

The final rule restriction will not apply to children and their parents, those older than 50, senior citizens, those with a disability, or pregnant women.

“With a booming economy that has more jobs than workers to fill them and the lowest unemployment rate in more than 50 years, now is the time for every work-capable American to find employment. In fact, the latest U.S. Department of Labor figures show the unemployment rate is 3.6% and there are 7 million job openings. The longer an individual is out of the workforce, the harder it is to re-enter. Now is the time for these individuals to enter, re-enter, and remain in the workforce,” the agency said in a release.

The USDA noted that in 2000, when America’s unemployment rate was 4 percent, the number of Americans receiving food stamps was just over 17 million. In 2019, with an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, more than 36 million Americans are receiving food stamps, the agency explained.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York called the decision by the Trump administration “heartless.”

“The Trump administration is driving the vulnerable into hunger just as the Christmas season approaches,” he told The New York Times. “It is heartless. It is cruel. It exposes a deep and shameful cruelness, and hypocrisy in this administration.”

The USDA also proposed another rule, according to the NY Times, that would close a loophole that allows people with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level — about $50,000 for a family of four — to receive food stamps. The agency also reportedly wants to bar households with more than $2,250 in assets, or $3,500 for a household with a disabled adult, from receiving food stamps.

That move is expected to strip nearly 3 million people of their benefits, and nearly 1 million children would lose automatic eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals.

In December 2018, the U.S. House and Senate each passed a Farm Bill, with the House version including changes to the SNAP program. Those changes included work requirements for food stamp recipients aged 49 to 59, and parents of children ages 6 to 12, The Washington Post reported. The House bill's changes to the SNAP program were not included in the final bill signed by the president. 

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