USDA wants to hear from the public and policy experts about how to push unemployed, able-bodied adults who are getting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits into the workforce.

In an advance notice of proposed rulemaking (ANPR) to be published in tomorrow’s Federal Register, the department’s Food and Nutrition Service will seek input “on potential policy, program, and regulatory changes that could advance its goal of addressing food insecurity by helping able-bodied SNAP recipients obtain and maintain employment and aligning program regulations with the President’s Budget proposals related to ABAWDs” – able-bodied adults without dependents.

“As Americans get back to work, it is appropriate to review how SNAP can better promote work and self-sufficiency so that fewer Americans need assistance from the program,” the ANPR says.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Thursday that the administration’s goal is to encourage SNAP beneficiaries to become economically independent. "We’re trying to provide a ramp upward for independence into a job that frankly would be much more productive, much more profitable, much more beneficial, for the families that are being served," he told reporters at USDA’s annual Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va. 

Perdue stopped short, however, of saying whether the department would approve a Wisconsin plan to increase work requirements for able-bodied adults to 30 hours a week. USDA’s current requirement is 20 hours a week. “We will look at it very carefully and reasonably. I can’t confirm today that we will agree to it,” Perdue said. 

Perdue also defended his department’s proposal to convert half of SNAP cash benefits to boxes of staple foods that would be delivered to beneficiaries. “Why not do something different in this regard?” The boxes would especially benefit SNAP recipients who have difficulty getting transportation to stores, he said. 

He said the idea originated in his department after consultations with food banks and the delivery business.

Although the proposal has come under broad criticism as a Depression-era approach to poverty alleviation, House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, told Agri-Pulse last week that he was considering authorizing a pilot project in the next farm bill. Perdue said, “Admittedly it would be difficult to roll out a U.S.-wide global network of delivery."

Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Brandon Lipps stressed in a media teleconference today that the ANPR is a “preliminary first step to seek input. It’s not the beginning of the actual rulemaking process.”

Of particular concern to USDA is what it sees as the overuse by states of waivers to work requirements for ABAWDs, who can only receive SNAP benefits for three months every three years “unless the individual is working and/or participating in a work program half-time or more, or participating in workfare,” according to the ANPR.

States can ask for a waiver of the time limit “if unemployment is high or the area does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment,” the ANPR says. “Moreover, the Act gives states discretion to exempt 15 percent of the individuals who would otherwise be subject to the time limit.”

“Too many states have asked to waive work requirements, abdicating their responsibility to move participants to self-sufficiency,” Perdue said in a press release. “Past decisions may have been the easy short-term choice, but USDA policies must change if they contribute to a long-term failure for many SNAP participants and their families.”

The proposed fiscal 2019 budget for USDA would limit work requirement waivers for ABAWDs to counties with unemployment rates of 10 percent or more, producing an estimated savings of $17.8 billion over 10 years.

In the ANPR, FNS seeks input on a number of questions, such as: “In light of (USDA’s) interest in helping SNAP participants find and maintain meaningful employment, how could the process for requesting to waive the time limit, the information needed to support waiver approval, and the waiver eligibility parameters be changed in order to provide appropriate relief for areas of high unemployment and a clearly demonstrated lack of jobs?”

Also, FNS says in the ANPR, “States currently have discretion to define the area they are requesting to waive. Should states maintain this flexibility? Should an ‘economic area’ be limited in geographic scope, such as to a single county, metropolitan area, or labor market area?”

USDA also is looking at how to best use its authority and resources to help ABAWDs find “meaningful work” and achieve self-sufficiency, such as through state employment and training programs.

Lipps said the president’s budget does not include specific increases for state employment and training programs.

Initial reaction to the announcement from a key anti-poverty group was critical.

“Under SNAP rules, unemployed people without kids are cut off SNAP if they aren’t working 20 hours a week – even if they are willing and trying to work,” said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center for Budget & Policy Priorities. “We welcome the opportunity to weigh in on the harshness of this rule and ways to help, not harm, very poor unemployed people.  Unfortunately, this appears to be another effort on the part of the administration to make this rule even more punitive and unfair.”