The move comes the same day that President Donald Trump signed an $867 billion farm bill that reauthorized agriculture and conservation programs while leaving the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which serves roughly 40 million Americans, virtually untouched.
Passage of the farm bill followed months of tense negotiations over House efforts to significantly tighten work requirements and the Senate's refusal to accept the provisions. Currently, able-bodied adults ages 18-49 without children are required to work 20 hours a week to maintain their SNAP benefits. The House bill would have raised the age of recipients subject to work requirements from 49 to 59 and required parents with children older than 6 to work or participate in job training. The House measure also sought to limit circumstances under which families that qualify for other poverty programs can automatically be eligible for SNAP.
None of those measures made it into the final farm bill despite Trump's endorsement. Now the administration is using regulatory rulemaking to try to scale back the SNAP program. Work-eligible able-bodied adults without dependents, known as ABAWDs, can currently receive only three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period if they don't meet the 20-hour work requirement. But states with an unemployment rate of 10 percent or higher or a demonstrable lack of sufficient jobs can waive those limitations.
States are also allowed to grant benefit extensions for 15 percent of their work-eligible adult population without a waiver. If a state doesn't use its 15 percent, it can bank the exemptions to distribute later, creating what Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue referred to as a "stockpile."
The USDA's proposed rule would strip states' ability to issue waivers unless a city or county has an unemployment rate of 7 percent or higher. The waivers would be good for one year and would require the governor to support the request. States would no longer be able to bank their 15 percent exemptions. The new rule also would forbid states from granting waivers for geographic areas larger than a specific jurisdiction.
Perdue said the proposed rule is a tradeoff for Trump's support of the farm bill, which Trump signed Thursday. "I have directed Secretary Perdue to use his authority to close work requirement loopholes in the food stamp program," Trump said at the signing ceremony. "That was a difficult thing to get done, but the farmers wanted it done, we all wanted it done, and in the end, it's going to make a lot of people happy."
Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi on Thursday slammed the Trump administration's efforts to restrict SNAP. "Why at Christmas would you take food out of the mouths of American people?" she said. The USDA in February solicited public comment on ways to reform SNAP, and Perdue has repeatedly voiced support for scaling back the program.
The Trump administration's effort, while celebrated by some conservatives, has been met with criticism from advocates who say tightening restrictions will result in more vulnerable Americans, including children, going hungry.
A Brookings Institution study published this summer said more stringent work requirements are likely to hurt those who are already part of the workforce but whose employment is sporadic. House Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, was the primary champion for tighter SNAP work requirements in the House farm bill and remained committed to the provision throughout negotiations.
Conaway praised the rule Thursday for "creating a roadmap for states to more effectively engage ABAWDs in this booming economy." Conaway in September blasted the Senate for refusing to adopt work requirements and suggested that Perdue doesn't have the authority to make broad changes to the SNAP program.
"The Senate seems to have abandoned the idea that it is Congress' responsibility to fix the waiver issue and that somehow Secretary Perdue could wave a magic wand and fix that. It's not his responsibility; he does not have the authority," Conaway said in an interview with Pro Farmer, a trade publication.
On Thursday, Conaway spokeswoman Rachel Millard said the congressman was referring to Perdue's authority to change laws, which he does not have, not the secretary's ability to pursue regulatory action. She said Conaway continues to support Perdue's efforts to limit SNAP.
The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, who along with its Republican chairman, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, crafted the bipartisan Senate bill without any changes to SNAP, blasted the Trump administration for its attempt to restrict the program.
"This regulation blatantly ignores the bipartisan farm bill that the president is signing today and disregards over 20 years of history giving states flexibility to request waivers based on local job conditions," Stabenow said. "I expect the rule will face significant opposition and legal challenges."