The Trump Administration tightened its rules for obtaining food stamp benefits this week, in a move many experts and community organizers fear could have a detrimental effect on the nearly 700,000 vulnerable Americans it’s expected to impact.
Approximately 36 million people currently receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) assistance, otherwise known as food stamps, a federal program for low-income individuals and families to better afford food. Forms of SNAP assistance come with conditions — time limits and work requirements, for example — but many states have been able to apply for waivers to those limitations in areas with high unemployment. The new rule, formalized Wednesday, aims to limit who qualifies for those exemptions by placing stricter standards on states in order to qualify for a waiver. Able-bodied adults without dependents living in areas with less than a 10% unemployment rate will have to prove 20 hours of work a week in order to receive consistent benefits, which can be difficult, experts say, for people who lack access to job opportunities or are not receiving enough hours of work per week.
“Those people and their needs don’t evaporate simply because the federal government backs down on some of its commitments,” says Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC), a national nonprofit that advocates for people experiencing food insecurity. “It shifts those costs to others downstream — to states, to localities, to charities who won’t be able to fill that gap, and of course in many circumstances, it shifts that burden right back on to the hungry household.”
The Administration’s new rule impacts able-bodied adults between 18-49 years old who do not have dependents. Since 1996, in order to qualify for SNAP benefits, adults in this category have had benefits capped at three months within a 36-month span, unless they provide sufficient proof of at least 20 hours of work per week. However, many states have been granted waivers by the federal government if regions of the state experience high unemployment rates or can indicate other economic factors that prove the area lacks sufficient jobs. Nearly every state at one point in its history has utilized a waiver during times of economic downturn. Under the new rule, those waivers will not be as readily applied.
The Trump Administration says the final rule will encourage work, and cites the low national unemployment rate and a stable economy as the reason for the change.
“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” said Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue in a public statement. “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.”
Vollinger and other food bank organizers who spoke with TIME disagree. “It’s very short-sighted,” Vollinger says. Economic downturns, natural disasters or industry failures, for example, can effect different parts of the country at any given time, she says. “Over time, it’s going to mean that any area of the country that is susceptible — as they all are — is going to have a lesser option of getting help at a time that it’s most needed.”
In the short-term, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicts 688,000 adults will loose their benefits when the rule goes into effect on April 1, 2020.
Here’s what to know about the Trump Administration’s new SNAP rule:
What is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program?
Examples of food stamp programs can be traced as far back as 1936, but the Food Stamp Act of 1964 established a permanent program. Since then, millions of people have been able to qualify for governmental assistance in order to better afford food. In 1996, Congress enacted a series of welfare reforms, including setting a time limit on food stamp benefits, with the caveat that states can apply for waivers to the time limits and work requirements during times of high unemployment and economic downturns. For example, the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 left many unemployed in several Gulf states, therefore time limits and work requirements on SNAP benefits were waived.
Since 1996, nearly every state in the country has utilized a waiver. During the height of the recession, the Obama Administration temporarily did away with the waiver program altogether, in order to allow the neediest to retain their SNAP benefits during nationwide high unemployment.
Today, food stamps are no longer actual stamps, but an EBT card that can be used at most grocery retailers across the country. In Fiscal Year 2018, 39.7 million people received SNAP benefits. Of those, 2.9 million were able-bodied adults between the ages of 18-49 without a dependent — nearly 74% of whom, the USDA says, were not working.
What is the Trump administration’s new policy on food stamps?
Beginning April 1, every able-bodied adult between the ages of 18-49 who does not have a dependent will have to work at least 20 hours a week in order to keep their SNAP benefits; otherwise, those benefits will be capped at three months within a 36-month period. People with a proven disability, children and the elderly will not be impacted.
These restrictions have already existed since 1996, but under the new rule states can no longer ask the federal government to temporarily waive the restrictions unless it’s for an area with an unemployment rate of 10% or higher or if the state can otherwise prove a lack of sufficient jobs.
Those who cannot find 20 hours of paid work per week also have the option to participate 20 hours per week in a local, state or federal work program, such as a SNAP Employment and Training program. Such programs vary state-by-state, but can help a participant gain work experience and keep their benefits in exchange for a certain amount of hours worked per week. Adults in this category can also combine paid work hours with a government work program in order to meet the requirements for SNAP benefits.
In West Virginia, where the unemployment rate is 4.8% and about 357,000 receive SNAP benefits, requiring 20 hours of work in order to receive supplemental benefits will result in people going hungry, says Chad Morrison, executive director of the Mountaineer Food Bank, one of two food banks in the state.
In May 2016, West Virginia rolled out a pilot program in nine counties with the lowest unemployment rates that required a minimum of 20 hours of work per week in order to receive SNAP benefits. It failed, resulting in 5,400 people losing their benefits and an increase in food insecurity, while employment remained stagnant, according to the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
“The people who will be impacted by this will be people who don’t have access to transportation, don’t have access to consistent work opportunities … there’s just so many unique challenges,” Morrison tells TIME. “There’s a lot of people still hurting. Anything that doesn’t help provide more access to food hurts.”
Who will be impacted and how?
After West Virginia ran its pilot program, the Mountaineer Food Bank immediately saw an increase in people relying on food pantries across the impacted counties, says Morrison.
“It’s putting tremendous stress on our emergency food system,” Morrison says. “And it’s not accomplishing the things that [the government] is wanting to see happen. It’s not helping anyone in West Virginia, I can say that.”
Now, he expects the state will see similar patterns when the federal rule is implemented. “There’s a tremendous amount of people that are struggling,” he adds. “The population of people that this is going to impact the most are people that are already facing really unique barriers to access food.”
Rural communities, for example, who don’t have access to transportation or consistent work opportunities.
The rule will impact states differently, depending on which states are currently utilizing a waver, but eventually, the policy has the potential to impact each state, Vollinger says. “Almost all states at one time or another under Democratic and Republican governance and under Democratic and Republican USDA Administrations, have sought and gotten approval for wavers on criteria that now the USDA wants to walk away from,” she says.
The new rule also doesn’t account for people who are actively searching for work or whether those with a job are simply not being offered enough hours to meet the requirement.
A March 2019 study found that in Fiscal Year 2017, 1.2 million adults who participated in SNAP were not working an average of 20 hours or more a week, and would have lost their SNAP benefits if they lived in a state that wasn’t participating in the waver program. Mathematica analyzed FY 2017 data after the USDA initially announced a proposal to the rule change in February of 2019. About 88% of adults lived at or below 50% of the poverty level.
About one-third of the adults in this category lived in households that reported income while receiving SNAP benefits, with an average monthly income of $557. The study also found that the average monthly SNAP benefit was $181 per person.
“It’s not related to whether or not someone is willing to work,” Vollinger says. “Some of those 700,000 people — a lot of them who will lose benefits — are willing to work but didn’t get the opportunity, or they are working but they aren’t able to work the sufficient hours… [A strong national economy] doesn’t mean that the the local economy isn’t still struggling.”
What has been the response to the new policy?
Many, including Emily Weikert Bryant, executive director of the Feeding Indiana’s Hungry food bank in Indianapolis, have expressed anger and frustration at the new rule. She joins many Democratic lawmakers, food bank organizers and several Presidential candidates, in criticizing the government.
Indiana has not utilized a waiver for SNAP benefits in some years, Weikert Bryant tells TIME, but her concern is for the future.
“To restrict access, or to restrict state’s options when they need them is the wrong way to do this,” she says. “We’re not talking about cash, we’re not talking about superfluous things… it ultimately comes down to a meal.”
Vollinger, Morrison and Weikert Bryant say they worry that reducing SNAP benefits could also be a detriment to retailers who might experience less consumer spending as a result.
The new rule might still face legal or legislative challenges. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, Morrison says the food bank is preparing for a potential uptick in needs come April. “As a food bank, we’re always trying to think ahead,” he says. “But in a resource-scarce environment, it’s sometimes harder.”
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