Last week, after a marathon of debate, Congress passed another Farm Bill. To explain exactly what’s in the mammoth $867 billion package, it might be easier to describe what’s not in it. Between assistance for farmers, offsets for the ongoing agricultural trade war with China, hemp subsidies, and a reauthorization of most of the country’s food assistance programs for low-income people, the Farm Bill is truly a kitchen-sink endeavor. But what’s missing from the legislation is just as important: It doesn’t include tighter work requirements for people who receive food stamps.
That wasn’t for lack of trying. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue kicked off 2018 by signaling that the department was moving toward stricter eligibility for people in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which would require more people to work to receive benefits, a position that has been championed by President Donald Trump and conservative stalwarts in Congress. But, as Trump’s own trade war with China disrupted the livelihood of farmers in America, the necessity of passing the bill and its agricultural safety-net programs outweighed the rhetorical importance of SNAP work requirements, leading to a relatively uncontroversial final bill that sailed through both chambers with bipartisan support.
But the White House might get to have it both ways. On Thursday, the Agriculture Department announced that it would be proposing a rule to curtail exactly how many people can receive food stamps without working, a rule similar to one that Republican lawmakers intended to place in the Farm Bill itself. Assuming the rule is implemented after a 60-day comment period, it would net Purdue and Trump much of what they wanted in the way of tighter work requirements for SNAP. And it would do so by executive authority, potentially removing significant numbers of people from the American safety net on the whim of the executive branch alone.
The rule would work by tightening a waiver that’s present in the SNAP program under existing law. Technically, for able-bodied people ages 18 to 49 with no dependents, the program already does require them to work or engage in job training to continue to receive benefits for more than three months at a time. But, reflecting the realities of structural poverty and the administrative burden for states of that time limit, SNAP allows states to request waivers for some counties and cities under certain conditions. Currently, under one of those waivers, in places where the unemployment rate is 20 percent higher than the national rate, states can effectively remove time limits and the work requirement. Most states over the past decade have used this option liberally, and many people, especially in economically depressed areas, have received food stamps who otherwise wouldn’t be able to. According to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, somewhere close to 40 percent of Americans live in places where states have SNAP waivers in effect.
For the White House, this situation runs counter to the purpose of the SNAP program. “It’s evident that there are able-bodied adults without dependents who are on the food-stamp program, who we believe it is in their best interests, and their families’ best interests, to move into an independent lifestyle,” Perdue said in January. In the fact sheet announcing the rule fulfilling Perdue’s preference, the USDA announced that “in 2016 there were 3.8 million individual [able-bodied adults without dependents] on the SNAP rolls, with 2.8 million (or almost 74 percent) of them not working.” Citing the strong economy and a low unemployment rate, the fact sheet argues that even under the waiver threshold, where counties with unemployment at least 20 percent higher than the national average qualify, the minimum end of that range is still somewhere near 5 percent unemployment, a mark approaching “full employment.”
The proposed rule reflects this argument. It would require that local unemployment rise above a floor of 7 percent before the 20 percent provision kicks in. With the current unemployment rate, practically the rule would mean that only counties and cities with more than 7 percent unemployment could have work requirements for able-bodied adults waived after three months of enrollment.
The research on the safety net predicts that what will follow such a rule will not be an increase in employment among low-income people, but an increase in deep poverty. Most people who can work do work, and perhaps especially under the “natural employment” scenario the Trump administration envisions as the floor for long-term food support, those people who can’t find or secure jobs are not likely out of a job solely because they lack motivation. And, as has been argued when state governments have attempted to implement more work requirements and eligibility restrictions on SNAP and other safety-net programs like Medicaid, the stated logic of work requirements is largely self-defeating. The requirements are already burdensome and curtail the ability of the program to prepare people for work. “The SNAP program already has work requirements,” according to a brief from the liberal Center for American Progress, “which in reality function as harsh time limits for unemployed and underemployed workers, as well as people who face serious barriers to work.”
According to opponents of the proposed USDA rule, it’s a naked power play, one that uses anti-welfare rhetoric to inflame existing racial disparities in wealth and employment. A statement from Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, says, “the Administration is now proposing to implement, through executive action, what it failed to secure through legislation.” With respect to the inherent racial disparities at play, the statement reads: “People of color would be at particular risk, given their much higher unemployment rates and continued racial discrimination in labor markets.”
In all, the proposed rule does fit in recent uses of executive action to make sharp cuts to the safety net, public welfare, and public health even as public opinion is clearly in favor of the provision of those services. Under Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma, states have been given guidance allowing work requirements to be tacked on to state Medicaid programs, although that directive has been tied up in courts. Earlier this year, under Secretary Ben Carson, the Department of Housing and Urban Development attempted to triple the minimum rents for federally subsidized housing to combat what it called “perverse incentives, including discouraging these families from earning more income and becoming self-sufficient.” Carson walked back that plan this summer.
It’s possible that the new rule from the USDA could be gummed up in a similar way to those policies, but clearly they all represent a presidential paradigm that will use any tools at hand to kick people off the safety net. And, even after an election in which concern for public programs helped drive record numbers of people to the polls in a “blue wave” election for Democrats, the message to those voters from the White House is that their vote does not matter.