USDA to reduce work exemptions for some SNAP recipients

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Christopher Walljasper/Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

A sign at a checkout counter, telling customers the establishment accepts payment via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The USDA wants to tighten work requirements for 2.8 million Americans receiving benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps.

The proposed rule change was announced Thursday, the morning President Donald Trump signed a Farm Bill that notably left out changes to SNAP.

“The bill provides a much needed peace of mind to our farmers and ranchers and reinforces the farm safety net,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a December 19 press conference. “It did, however miss an opportunity, I believe, to strengthen work requirements for recipients of our Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.”

The SNAP program already requires able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) to work, seek out employment or participate in employment and training programs. Able-bodied adults are defined as between the ages of 18 and 49, without disabilities or dependents.

But Perdue said three quarters of the 3.8 million able-bodied adults on SNAP in 2016 were not working because of waivers handed out by states. More than 44 million Americans received SNAP benefits in 2016.

The proposed rules would change how states request waivers for recipients when unemployment is high. These waivers were common in the years following the 2008 recession. They were often statewide, but have narrowed in recent years.

Currently, an able-bodied adult can receive SNAP benefits for just three months over a 36 month period without working. But states can waive work requirements if unemployment in a given area is more than 20 percent above the national average over the last two years. With national unemployment currently at 4.6 percent, that means any county or area with 6 percent unemployment could be eligible for a waiver.

But the new rules would make the threshold for waivers a fixed 7 percent. A review of data from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics shows 16 metropolitan areas had a two-year average unemployment level between 6 and 7 percent. 18 other areas saw average unemployment above 7 percent since 2017.

Nearly 400 metropolitan areas had unemployment rates below 6 percent during the same time.

Brandon Lipps, acting deputy undersecretary for food nutrition and consumer services at the USDA, said the rule change would reduce the number of areas that could receive waivers by 75 percent and save $15 billion over the next decade.

“These changes are not about moving people who truly need help off food assistance,” said Lipps. “They’re about designing programs to encourage participants to take proactive steps toward self sufficiency.”

Other concerns with SNAP

It's unclear how many able-bodied adults receiving SNAP benefits are truly unemployed or not participating in employment training programs.

A May 2018 report from the Government Accountability Office highlights the challenges of using state-provided data. “A greater percentage of ABAWDs have been participating in these (SNAP) programs in recent years,” the report said.

But it also pointed to issues with reporting.

“There was widespread confusion among states regarding the need to track ABAWDs when waivers were in place, and that as a result, some states had not been tracking ABAWDs or properly documenting SNAP recipients’ ABAWD status.”

A new GAO report released November 20 showed just 200,000 SNAP recipients were using employment and training programs in 2016, a 19 percent drop since 2008.

That’s despite the fact that the number of SNAP recipients who could work doubled in the same time.

Nearly $300 million a year has been spent on employment and training programs since 2007. Yet only 3 percent of work-eligible adults on SNAP are using these training programs, half as many as in 2008.

The November report noted that the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service has been “implementing strategies to help states improve their SNAP E&T programs, including expanding the reach of the programs and improving the reliability of state reported data.”

The GAO’s May report mentions other areas of SNAP that could be improved.

It notes that the USDA paid out $2.6 billion in improper SNAP benefits in 2014, 3.7 percent of all SNAP payments that year.

Ann Coffey, assistant inspector general to the USDA, in a statement submitted to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in September, said her office had investigated nearly 900 cases of fraud in the last five years, resulting in $463 million in savings.

Other proposed changes

Thursday's proposed rule would also prevent states from grouping counties to inflate the average unemployment rates and limit states’ ability to “bank” unused exemptions from previous years.

Perdue said this “gerrymandering” of areas is common and leads to associating “multiple counties together that are not otherwise connected economically.”

“Banking,” under the current rule means states can grant work requirement exemptions to 15 percent of their able-bodied adults, and can carry unused exemptions forward. Perdue said states that have large numbers of unused exemptions can continue providing SNAP benefits to unemployed people far beyond the three months they are allotted.

“California, for example, has stockpiled some 800,000 exemptions over time, meaning it can exempt ABAWDs far into the future,” said Perdue.

The USDA said it will begin accepting public comment on the proposed rule change in the next few days. Comments will be accepted for 60 days.

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