The Trump administration is moving to make it much harder for states and localities to get waivers from the work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for able-bodied adults without dependents.

Ahead of President Donald Trump's scheduled signing of the new farm bill Thursday afternoon, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced a proposed rule that would rewrite the waiver rules first developed by the Clinton administration after Congress overhauled SNAP and other welfare programs 22 years ago. Under the 1996 law, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) are supposed to work or be in a job training program for at least 20 hours a week unless they live in an area exempted from the requirement.

The biggest change proposed by Perdue would prevent states or areas of states from getting waivers unless their unemployment rate is at least 7 percent. That restriction, coupled with additional changes, would reduce the areas that qualify for waivers by about 75 percent, according to USDA. The restrictions would cut the cost of the program by an estimated $15 billion over 10 years. 

Under current rules, waivers can be granted if the local unemployment rate exceeds the national rate by just 20 percent.

Without one of the waivers, ABAWDs can be out of work for only three months of every three years. But Perdue said that nearly 74 percent of the 3.8 million ABAWDs on SNAP in 2016 were covered by waivers exempting them from the time constraint.

“This is unacceptable to most Americans and belies common sense, particularly when employment opportunities are as plentiful as they currently are,” he said. “Millions of people who could work are continuing to receive SNAP benefits.”

In addition to the 7-percent unemployment standard, USDA is also seeking to bar “gerrymandering” from the process and would allow states to only submit waiver applications for areas that are economically tied. This would end the practice of applications tying high unemployment areas with low unemployment areas with the intent of making more recipients eligible for a waiver, officials said.

The term of the waivers would be reduced from two years to one.

USDA would continue to provide each state a certain number of exemptions for its ABAWDs, but states would no longer be allowed to carry over unused exemptions to the following year. 

“These changes are not about moving people who truly need help off of food assistance,” said Brandon Lipps, USDA’s acting deputy undersecretary for food and nutrition, and consumer service. “They are about designing programs to encourage participants to take proactive steps toward self-sufficiency.”

For 2018, Alaska, Louisiana, Nevada and New Mexico had statewide waivers from the time limit, and 29 others had waivers for individual regions, including 1,080 counties, Indian reservations and cities or townships. With the exception of Tennessee and an Indian reservation in South Dakota, all of the statewide and local exemptions were granted on the basis that their unemployment rate was 20 percent higher than the national average.

House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway, who was unsuccessful in adding similar language to the farm bill, which would have protected the changes from legal challenge, said the USDA provisions “will allow ABAWDs to seek new opportunities and achieve their goals.”

When the farm bill text was released last week without the Texas Republican’s work provisions included, Perdue was quick to say the administration would move forward with the proposed rule that was announced Thursday.

The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, expressed outrage at the proposed rule and said it was likely to face legal challenges. “Administrative changes should not be driven by ideology. I do not support unilateral and unjustified changes that would take food away from families," she said. 

Feeding America, a nationwide food bank network, estimates the rule would result in the loss of "8.5 billion meals from the tables of individuals facing hunger." 

"By restricting access to ABAWD waivers, this rule would increase the risk of food insecurity for nearly one million people," Kate Leone, the group's chief government relations officer, said in a statement. "For each meal provided by Feeding America, SNAP provides 12 meals. Private charity simply cannot compensate for the breadth of the impact of cuts to the program."

The proposed rule will be subject to a 60-day public comment period. Lipps pointed out a notice of proposed rulemaking generated about 35,000 comments earlier this year and predicted a similar level of public engagement on this proposal.

(Story updated to include additional reaction)

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