This morning, the U.S. Department of Agriculture unveiled their final rule that would subject more SNAP recipients to a three-month time limit on receiving benefits in a three-year period. This time limit on SNAP benefits for able-bodied people without dependents (“ABAWDs”) under age 50 who don’t either work or perform community service has been in place since 1996.
The Trump administration rule change will curtail states’ ability to waive the SNAP time limit in geographic areas that have high unemployment rates. This will put the food assistance benefits of more than 688,000 Americans at risk, including more than 90,000 Pennsylvanians and 1,900 people in Allegheny County.
The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services waived every county (including Allegheny County) but four from the three-month time limit starting in 2019. Pennsylvania and nearly all other states had also waived the requirement during the recent Great Recession. But the rule was back in effect in 2016, 2017, and 2018. As a result, over 3,000 people in Allegheny County lost access to SNAP benefits in that time period.
In 2018, this issue comprised 90% of Just Harvest’s advocacy cases related to benefit closures. Of those clients, almost 90 percent should have been exempt from the time limit rule but did not understand how to demonstrate that or understood only after their benefits were terminated. They included self-employed individuals who were not yet making a profit in a new venture as well as people with physical or mental limitations they had not yet gotten officially recognized as a temporary or permanent disability.
Other people who typically struggle to meet the 80 hour/month ABAWD work requirement are involuntary part-time workers, low-income part-time students, the formerly incarcerated, victims of domestic violence, the housing insecure, and those lacking in postsecondary education or training in a trade. The USDA acknowledges that the time limit rule change could have a disparate impact on people of color, who experience disproportionately higher rates of unemployment due to racist hiring, promotion, and retention practices, and a lack of resources in their neighborhoods.
Says Just Harvest public policy advocate Ann Sanders, “It is acutely obvious that the time limit rule is an inhumane and costly bureaucratic burden for the state. It poses a large and unnecessary barrier to accessing this vital program, further undermining the health and financial well-being of struggling people and communities.” Time limits on food assistance are simply bad public policy.
In addition to the personal harm, the societal impact, and the financial costs of mandating SNAP time limits, the rule change will directly weaken local economies by reducing SNAP benefits by $15 billion nationwide, according to the Administration’s own calculations. Just Harvest works with local retailers to carry fresh produce in areas that lack access to supermarkets. For many of these retailers, SNAP dollars comprise 40 percent or more of their revenue – a key factor in their ability to keep their doors open in neighborhoods that larger supermarkets find “not profitable enough” to serve.
The Trump administration claims the SNAP time limits rule change will promote economic mobility, as if many SNAP recipients are capable of working but aren’t and just need a push in the right direction. However, most non-disabled adults who receive food stamps are already working. Pushing those who aren’t or are between jobs into hunger and food insecurity will neither make them more employable nor increase their access to employment opportunities.
This rule change is one of three that the Administration has put forward to reduce access to SNAP this year. “President Trump should want to reduce the number of people who have to rely on SNAP to help keep food on the table. But doing so by blocking access to the program is like trying to reduce cancer diagnoses by making health care harder to afford. There are a number of ways they should instead be addressing hunger by investing in the nation’s workforce.” These include pushing to raise the federal minimum wage, increase funding for education, and restore the $2 billion in employment and job training programs that Congress has cut since 2001.
The rule will go into effect on April 1, 2020, unless stopped by the courts or Congress. The Senate had removed this measure when it was proposed in the 2018 reauthorization of the Food and Farm Bill.