The Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (USDA or “the Department”) proposes to amend its regulations to restrict the capacity of States to waive time limits on receipt of Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program benefits (SNAP — formerly known as Food Stamps) by non-disabled, unemployed adults without dependent children.  The proposed changes would achieve an estimated 75% reduction in the geographic areas that are allowed to waive these time limits based on the difficulty of finding jobs in those areas.  Comments on the proposal must be received on or before April 2, 2019 in order to be considered.

The Basics:

  • The USDA Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) furnishes eligible individuals with funds to purchase a limited amount of “healthy” food and thus stretch their food budget. The program benefit was formerly known as Food Stamps; but the coupons previously used to purchase food have been replaced by debit cards.
  • Federal law generally limits the amount of time an “able-bodied adult without dependents” (ABAWD) can receive SNAP benefits to 3 months in a 36-month period, unless the individual works or participates in a work program at least 20 hours a week.
  • Currently, States can gain federal approval for waiver of the 3 month time limit, statewide or in certain parts of the State, based on specified unemployment statistics and thresholds.
  • The proposed new rules would alter the waiver standards so as to substantially restrict the ability of States to waive benefits time limits for unemployed and underemployed individuals, and result in loss of food assistance by hundreds of thousand of people.
  • If finalized, the amended regulations would cut the cost of SNAP by an estimated $15 billion over a 10 year period.
  • Similar provisions imposing stricter work requirements on individuals categorized as ABAWDs had been included in the Farm Bill that passed the House of Representatives last June; however those provisions were removed from the final Farm Bill that became  law.
  • The current Secretary of Agriculture, along with other proponents of the revised rules, asserts that tightening SNAP eligibility by imposing stricter work requirements will benefit impoverished individuals by encouraging them to “take proactive steps toward self-sufficiency.”
  • Opponents of the proposed regulatory changes argue that the proposed rules, if finalized, would have devastating effects on many of the poorest of the poor, and would be especially unfair and damaging to people who have difficulty finding employment no matter what the overall unemployment rate, due to factors such as limited education, criminal records,or undiagnosed or temporary medical issues.

* We hope that you will read on before deciding what to say to the USDA regarding its proposed rulemaking.  If you do not have time, however, and wish to proceed with drafting comments right away, you can find instructions for how to submit comments by scrolling down to the end of this posting.


Summary of the Proposed SNAP Regulation Revisions:

Federal law generally limits the period of time an “able-bodied adult” without dependents (ABAWD) can receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to 3 months in a 36-month period, unless the individual meets certain work requirements (by working, or participating in job training, at least 20 hours a week). On the request of a State SNAP agency, the USDA can temporarily waive the 3-month time limit in areas that have an unemployment rate of over 10 percent or that lack sufficient jobs (which currently can be established by demonstrating that an area has an unemployment rate exceeding the nationwide unemployment rate by more than 20%). The law also provides State agencies with a limited number of other percentage-based exemptions that can be used by States to extend SNAP eligibility for ABAWDs otherwise subject to the time limit. Current regulations allow States considerable flexibility to define the areas to which these criteria are applied in granting waivers.

The proposed, revised regulations would limit the ability of States or particular areas within States to qualify for waivers, by redefining the criteria used to determine whether waiver requests will be granted. The new rules would set a new, minimum unemployment rate (or “floor”) of 7% for any qualifying area. In addition, the proposed rules would no longer allow State agencies to unilaterally define the areas for which they seek waivers, and would prevent States from combining unemployment data from areas with high rates of unemployment with areas with lower unemployment in order to maximize the area to which a waiver could apply. . Instead, the proposed rule would ensure the Department issues waivers only to economically “tied” areas that meet the new criteria defining what is meant by a lack of sufficient jobs. The proposed rule would also limit the duration of waivers to one year, more narrowly restrict the type of data that can be used to support waivers, and end the carryover from year to year of certain other, percentage-based exemptions that can currently be used by States to extend SNAP eligibility for ABAWDs otherwise subject to the time limit.

The Agency’s Justification for Changing SNAP Regulations: 

USDA takes the position that its proposed, more limited application of waivers, and more extensive adherence to the 3-month benefit limit for ABAWDs, is more consistent with Congressional intent in the SNAP program than current rules.  It also seeks to justify the new, more restrictive rules by asserting that they would not only save taxpayer money, but would actually benefit ABAWDs by encouraging them “to engage in meaningful work activities if they wish to continue to receive SNAP benefits,” thus helping them to move towards self-sufficiency and ultimately reducing the need for food assistance.

In addition, USDA points to decrease in the overall national unemployment rate over the past several years as further justification for changing the present waiver criteria, and in particular for establishing a “floor” unemployment rate for waiver-qualified areas.  The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking points out that a threshold rate of 20% above the national unemployment rate (a standard based on which a State can obtain a waiver for an area as one not having enough available jobs) means that waivers may be granted for areas with relatively low unemployment rates under 5% (that is, at the current national unemployment rate of 3.8%, a State could obtain a waiver for an area as long as its unemployment rate exceeds 4.56%).  In short, the Department has concluded that unemployment is now too low to warrant very extensive waiver of the 3 month SNAP benefit limit for ABAWDs.

Another assertion made in support of tightening SNAP work requirement waiver standards is that States have engaged in “gerrymandering” of geographic areas for which they have sought waivers in order to maximize waiver authority.  According to the Department, in other words, States have improperly expanded their waiver authorities to areas with relatively low unemployment by combining them, for purposes of waiver applications, with high unemployment areas, so that the combined unemployment data averages to a rate justifying waiver.

Additional Information and Resources for a Deeper Dive:

USDA’s Notice of Proposed Rulemaking seems rooted in a theory that — except in communities with exceptionally high rates of unemployment — “able-bodied” adult SNAP recipients under the age of 50 can find work if they want to, but often are not motivated to do so because they receive free food through the SNAP Program. Under this theory, denial of SNAP benefits will help to place unemployed and impoverished individuals on the road to self-sufficiency by removing a disincentive to their seeking and finding employment.   The USDA’s Press Release announcing its proposed SNAP rule stated that the new restrictions on SNAP benefits are intended to “move more able-bodied recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to self-sufficiency through the dignity of work” and combat  “lifelong dependency” on SNAP.

The Department’s stated position appears to ignore (or at least fails to mention) certain realities.  To begin with, SNAP benefits for an individual generally amount to less than $5 a day (approximately $4.20 on the average) of food-purchasing assistance.  Moreover, persons categorized as ABAWDs who are under 65 years old are ineligible for other “welfare” benefits under federal cash assistance programs (SSI, SSDI and TANF). They are also ineligible for Medicaid in States that did not opt for the “Medicaid Expansion” contemplated by the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).  As a result, impoverished individuals in the ABAWD group are often among the poorest of the poor, and SNAP is one of the few programs that offers them any potential assistance at all. Under these circumstances, it seems highly unlikely that an individual’s motivation to find or remain in paid employment would be diminished by the mere receipt of an extra $4.20 of food-purchasing assistance per day.

It is also important to understand that categorization of an individual as “able-bodied” means that he/she does not meet the definition of “disabled” under federal welfare program standards, but does not preclude the possibility that the individual is disadvantaged in the job market for health-related reasons (such as, for example, medical conditions that are temporary, not recognized as disabilities under current federal standards, or undiagnosed  — a particularly likely possibility when a person lacks health insurance, money to pay for healthcare, or Medicaid coverage).  Other common reasons why ABAWD individuals may be severely disadvantaged in seeking and finding employment include lack of education and/or communication skills,  criminal records, or lack of transportation.  The law exempts individuals from the SNAP time limit and corresponding work requirement based on factors such as age (over 49 or under 18), unfitness for work, having a dependent child, or being pregnant.  However, these exemptions do not help impoverished individuals with other problems or deficiencies that may make it difficult or impossible to get hired into the jobs available where those persons live.

It should be noted that the 20 hour a week work requirement for SNAP can be met through a job training program, qualifying volunteer work, or “workfare” participation.  These kinds of opportunities are not available in all communities, however, especially in more rural areas of the country.  In addition, some of the same kinds of factors that may make finding paid employment difficult (e.g., temporary or undiagnosed health issues) can interfere with participation in job training or unpaid work programs.

Additional online resources that you may wish to review before formulating comments to the Government include a USDA “Fact Sheet” summarizing the Department’s proposal, and  informative reporting on the topic in Politico. You can find an article on the website of The Heritage Foundation (written in reference to then-pending legislative proposals, but nonetheless relevant to the present potential regulatory changes) that is highly critical of SNAP work requirement waivers and supportive of not only their restriction, but their elimination.  You can also find a scholarly paper on the website of The Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality making the argument that work requirements in social welfare programs are ineffective and counter-productive. Informative articles, expressing criticism of and opposition to the proposed changes in SNAP, appear on the website of the Food Research and Action Center,  and the Food Politics blog.  Other articles about the potential new rules have appeared in publications such as Food Business News, and AgriPulse. (Note, these last two articles require online registration in order to be read in full.  While free, such registration does require furnishing certain personal information, such as name and email address, to the organization.)


If You Are Ready To Comment on the USDA’s Proposal:

The easiest course is to go to the Comment Page for this topic on the Government’s eRulemaking website, type your comments into the box provided for that purpose, and follow the other instructions for submission of your comments. (Note that the fields for first and last name can be filled with “Anonymous” if you prefer not to identify yourself.) This is the method of comment submission preferred by the USDA.

Alternatively, you can submit comments in letter form by mail addressed to Certification Policy Branch, Program Development Division, FNS, 3101 Park Center Drive, Alexandria, Virginia 22302.  Include “ID: FNS-2018-0004-5999″ in a subject line on your letter if you choose this method of comment submission.

In order to be considered, your comments must be received by the USDA Food Nutrition Service no later than 11:59 PM Eastern Time on April 2, 2019.