The Agriculture Department today released a final rule that stiffens work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) and makes it more difficult for states to get waivers to provide benefits to that category of SNAP participants.

House Agriculture Nutrition, Oversight and Government Operations Subcommittee Chair Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and several groups criticized the rule while House Agriculture Committee ranking member Michael Conaway, R-Texas, praised it.

In announcing the rule, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said that it was appropriate to make changes to the rule because the economy under the Trump administration is booming and USDA is taking action so that people will benefit from “the dignity of work.”

In a statement, Perdue added, “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. 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.”

Brandon Lipps, the Agriculture deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, noted that the rule applies only to people ages 18 to 49 and does not apply to children or their parents. Under current rules, ABAWDs qualify for SNAP benefits only three months out of every 36 months, but states can apply for waivers to the rule on the grounds that the economy is bad and unemployment is high. But the new rule makes it harder for the states to get waivers, which will have to be in “labor market areas,” not statewide.

Lipps said the rule is expected to eliminate benefits for 688,000 people, at a cost savings of $5.5 billion over five years. He also noted that the rule requires that the top government executive in each state and territory, which is usually the governor, sign off on a waiver request and that the Trump administration had given the states warnings over several years that it would change the regulations for ABAWDs.

But Fudge said in a news release, “The decision to finalize a rule jeopardizing the food security of nearly 2 million of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens the week following Thanksgiving, and at the height of the holiday season, reveals this administration’s callous and cruel intentions. This is an unacceptable escalation of the administration’s war on working families, and it comes during a time when too many are forced to stretch already-thin budgets to make ends meet. The USDA is the Grinch that stole Christmas. Shame on them.

“Since Congress overwhelmingly and historically voted against these cruel policies in the 2018 farm bill, this administration has made three attempts to relitigate that fight and strip benefits from hungry people across our country. Those families and the organizations that fight for them have repeatedly told the administration, through tens of thousands of public comments, this rule and others USDA intends to issue would cut life-saving nutrition assistance at a time when they need it most.

“What’s more, the administration refuses to take an honest look at the people they are targeting with this rule and what challenges they face that contribute to their hunger. USDA has the authority to research whether those affected by this rule are in fact disabled, or elderly, or veterans, or any number of other classifications that may exacerbate their need. However, there is no indication USDA has done so to date. If it had, the department would discover that many of these SNAP recipients are either attempting to find work or face hardships that prevent them from doing so.

“Instead of considering hungry individuals and their unique struggles and needs, the department has chosen to paint them with the broadest brush, demonizing them as lazy and undeserving,” Fudge added. “The president has cynically weaponized USDA as a blunt political instrument, in clear opposition to its mission to ‘do right and feed everyone.’ USDA has sunk to a new low in its war on the poor.”

Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., said, “This rule could cause one million people to lose their food assistance while doing nothing to help them find jobs. This administration is out of touch with families who are struggling to make ends meet by working seasonal jobs or part-time jobs with unreliable hours. Seasonal holiday workers, workers in Northern Michigan’s tourism industry, and workers with unreliable hours like waiters and waitresses are the kinds of workers hurt by this proposal. There’s a reason Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly rejected this callous proposal in the farm bill and instead focused on bipartisan job training opportunities that actually help families find good paying jobs.

“Congress considered and chose not to include similar changes to SNAP in the bipartisan 2018 farm bill. In fact, an amendment to SNAP was rejected by the House of Representatives by a vote of 83-330 in 2018. A similar amendment proposed in the Senate was rejected by a bipartisan vote of 68-30. After the rule was proposed, 47 senators from both parties urged the administration to withdrawal the rule,” Stabenow added.

Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., and Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, who sit on the House Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, also said they oppose the rule.

“The Trump administration is cutting off a vital lifeline by rigging SNAP against the very people who the program was created to help,” DeLauro said. “People who are food insecure deserve access to food, not further stigmatization. The USDA’s own data continues to show that the vast majority of SNAP recipients who can work, do. Make no mistake: This rule will weaken our country’s safety net by taking away food from hundreds of thousands of people.”

“The Trump administration is shamelessly picking up where House Republicans left off because they could not get this passed in Congress in the 2018 farm bill. Instead of listening to the will of the American people, Secretary Perdue has decided to jam through a regulation that punishes people for being poor. That is unconscionable,” DeLauro added.

Pingree said, “The Trump administration gave trillion-dollar tax cuts to corporations and billionaires, yet they don’t think people should have access to healthy, nutritious foods. This is another example of how their cruelty knows no bounds.”

But House Agriculture Committee ranking member Michael Conaway, R-Texas, said, “Not everyone in this country is able to work. Many SNAP recipients are disabled, or serve as the primary caregiver for a child or elderly relative. But for those whose situations allow it, employment is a chance to regain dignity and purpose, and contribute to our economy and society. We should not count these individuals out simply based on the circumstances they find themselves in today. The 2018 farm bill enhanced educational opportunities and training programs dedicated to serving SNAP recipients, ensuring that everyone looking to improve their situation has the chance to do so; USDA will be building on those efforts in the near future.

“I applaud Secretary Perdue’s decision to move forward with this rule, and look forward to continued efforts that move more Americans from poverty to prosperity.”

Center for Budget and Policy Priorities President Robert Greenstein said that the Trump administration issued “a draconian rule” that will “cut off basic food assistance for nearly 700,000 of the nation’s poorest and most destitute people. Those affected — SNAP participants ages 18 through 49 who aren’t raising minor children in their homes — are among the poorest of the poor.

“From the provision’s enactment in 1996 until now, both Democratic and Republican presidents alike have operated under a common set of criteria in granting waivers from the three-month cutoff. And Democratic and Republican governors alike have sought and secured these waivers. Thirty-six states have waivers for parts of their state where unemployment is highest.

“Now, the Trump administration is abandoning this longstanding, bipartisan practice and replacing it with a much more restrictive rule that will increase hunger and destitution. The new rule sharply restricts states’ ability to protect unemployed adults from the harsh time limit.

“What’s more, the final rule is more severe than the proposed rule, which itself was very harsh. Under the final rule, states must rely on historical data that would not reflect the onset of economic downturns until many months later. Instead of mitigating a recession’s harm, the new rule will exacerbate it,” Greenstein concluded.

Lipps said the states offer job search, training and volunteer services, but Greenstein said, “The administration’s portrayal of the new rule as a reasonable ‘work requirement’ is misleading — most states don’t offer any job training opportunity or slots in a work program to most people subject to the three-month limit. And people who are ‘playing by the rules’ and looking hard for a job are cut off nonetheless.

“The rule will hit hardest those with the greatest difficulties in the labor market. That includes adults with no more than a high school education, people living in rural areas, people of color, and people who work in unstable jobs, which is common is the very-low-wage labor market, even when the economy is strong.

“Instead of punishing those facing destitution and other difficult circumstances, the administration should seek to assist them by pursuing policies such as more and better job training and employment programs, a higher minimum wage, and a strengthened Earned Income Tax Credit,” Greenstein said.

The Food Research & Action Center said the rule will “take away food from people in need in areas with too few jobs.”

FRAC President Jim Weill said, “In 1996, when Congress enacted time limits on SNAP (then called food stamps) for certain adults who were unable to document sufficient hours of work each month, Congress provided that states could request from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waivers on the time limits for areas with too few jobs. The area waivers are important, although insufficient, safety valves for protecting food assistance for persons who are seeking but unable to find sufficient hours of work. In the decades since, USDA has followed the decision of Congress and processed area waiver requests from governors of both political parties based on accepted economic factors and metrics.

“The administration has now politicized the process, arbitrarily narrowing states’ ability to waive the time limit in many areas with insufficient jobs. This action flies in the face of congressional intent, coming almost a year after Congress passed the farm bill that left the current area waiver provisions in place.

“Most provisions of the rule are slated to take effect on April 1, 2020, unless Congress or the courts act to stop or delay it. If the rule is implemented, the nation would see higher rates of hunger and poverty. The final rule would cause serious harm to individuals, communities, and the nation while doing nothing to improve the health and employment of those impacted by the rule. In addition, the rule would harm the economy, grocery retailers, agricultural producers, and communities by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur local economic activity,” Weill concluded.

Center for Science in the Public Interest Associate Cassie Ramos said, “This regulation will enforce onerous work requirements for certain SNAP recipients, dealing a huge blow to those who navigate uncertain job prospects during difficult economic times. As a practical matter, for those impacted it will mean less nutritious meals, or meals that are skipped altogether. It’s another act of cold and brutish cruelty from an administration that goes out of its way to sabotage the already-sparse safety net for the most vulnerable Americans.”

Share Our Strength Senior Vice President Lisa Davis said, “It is deeply disappointing that despite overwhelming opposition to this proposal, the White House has finalized a rule that stiffens work requirements for millions of SNAP participants, which will likely lead to hundreds of thousands of people losing their benefits.

“Community members working on the frontlines of hunger – from physicians and nurses, to social workers and foster care representatives – stood up in chorus to underscore what should be common sense: Nutrition is a fundamental need, and taking food assistance away from those struggling to get by won’t help them get back on their feet.

“While our economy has recovered from the effects of the great recession, the financial realities of far too many people across our nation have not. Punishing those who cannot find work or have limited skills, health issues or inadequate transportation by taking away critical food assistance will do nothing to help them find a job or get back on their feet; it will only cause hardship and hunger. Share Our Strength strongly opposes this rule,” Davis said.

National Farmers Union Vice President of Public Policy and Communications Rob Larew said, “There is no question that the nutrition safety net is essential and effective – yet this administration has done everything it can to slash gaping holes into that net, allowing hundreds of thousands of people to slip through the cracks. These work requirements, which will erode food security in rural and urban communities alike, are just another example of that.”