POLITICS
02/22/2018 06:06 pm ET

The Trump Administration Wants Your Help Getting People Off Food Stamps

Conservative Republicans in Congress are itching for a food stamp fight this year.

WASHINGTON ― A week after President Donald Trump proposed replacing food stamp benefits with boxes of canned goods, the Trump administration is now crowdsourcing ideas on how to shrink enrollment in the program.

Roughly 43 million Americans received monthly benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in 2016, of whom 3.8 million were able-bodied adults without children. The administration thinks those people should get less help unless they find part-time jobs.

In a rare callout for ideas, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is seeking suggestions from the public on how to reduce the able-bodied caseload. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Thursday that the agency’s goal is “to move individuals and families from SNAP back to the workforce as the best long-term solution to poverty.”

The request for input is the latest signal the Trump administration wants more stringent food stamp rules as part of a “welfare reform” initiative for 2018. Trump-allied conservative Republicans in the House of Representatives are also itching for a food stamp fight, though it’s not clear if party leaders want to play up the issue in an election year.

Federal law imposes a three-month limit on food stamp benefits for able-bodied adults who don’t have children and don’t work at least 20 hours per week, but states with high unemployment have been allowed to waive the limit, which is billed as a “work requirement.”

It’s more thorough in asking how the procedures work but does not seem to pay as much attention to what are the harmful impacts. Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center

In the wake of the Great Recession, the USDA waived the limit for every state. As the national unemployment rate has fallen, the waivers have begun to expire; though 28 states can still disregard the time limit in selected areas, and five can waive it statewide.

“Too many states have asked to waive work requirements, abdicating their responsibility to move participants to self-sufficiency,” Perdue said.

As part of a symbolic budget proposal, last week the Trump administration suggested cutting costs 25 percent by replacing benefits with boxes of shelf-stable foods and also by making it more difficult for states to waive work requirements. The budget would also apply the time limit to people as old as 62; currently it applies to SNAP recipients younger than 50.

The USDA said Thursday that its request for ideas would help fulfill the goals in the budget proposal. Among other questions, the call for ideas asks how states should go about applying for waivers from the time limit and how they should determine whether someone is fit to work. The public comment period will be open for 45 days. 

“It’s more thorough in asking how the procedures work but does not seem to pay as much attention to what are the harmful impacts,” Ellen Vollinger of the Food Research and Action Center said in an interview, commenting on the announcement.

Vollinger said that people who lose benefits because of the time limit can wind up hungry, since federal law doesn’t require states to make allowances for people who can’t find suitable work. Someone unable to get to a job due to lack of transportation, for example, would see their food budget disappear.

Food stamps are supposed to be reauthorized this year as part of what’s known as a farm bill, legislation that pairs nutrition assistance with things like crop subsidies. House Agriculture Committee chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) has said he’s open to tougher time limits. 

As states have reimposed work requirements and the economy has improved, the number of SNAP recipients has declined since hitting a peak of 47 million in 2013. The percentage of SNAP recipients who are nondisabled adults without children has declined from 10.5 percent that year to 8.8 percent in 2016, according to the most recent data.

HuffPost readers: Have you had to meet SNAP work requirements? Tell us about it ― email arthur@huffpost.com. Please include your phone number if you’re willing to be interviewed. 

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