Brushing aside an outcry from anti-hunger advocates and congressional Democrats, the Trump administration on Wednesday finalized regulations that will make it harder for states to exempt able-bodied adults from work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. 

The Agriculture Department rule that tightens the waiver provisions first developed by the Clinton administration to implement a welfare reform law 23 years ago is expected to reduce SNAP enrollment by 688,000. 

The new regulations, which are expected to save taxpayers $5.5 billion over five years, take effect in April.

Under the 1996 law, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) from ages 18 to 49 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. 

One of the biggest changes imposed by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue would prevent areas from getting waivers unless their unemployment rate is at least 6%. That restriction, coupled with increased data and evidence standards, is expected to dramatically reduce the areas that qualify for waivers.

USDA is ending the policy of allowing statewide waivers, and a state agency would no longer be permitted to get local waivers without approval from the state's governor. 

Under the Clinton-era regulations, state and local waivers could be granted where the unemployment rate exceeded the national rate (currently 3.6%) by at least 20%.

Under the 1996 law, ABAWDs can be out of work for only three months of every three years In areas that haven’t received a waiver.

States will still be allowed to exempt from the work rules 12 percent of the SNAP caseload that is otherwise ineligible for benefits because of the time limit. But the new regulations limit the number of unused exemptions that can be carried over from year to year. Each exemption extends eligibility to one ABAWD for one month.

Perdue said the rule follows the original intent of the 1996 law and will "restore the dignity of work to a sizable portion of our population."

Conservative groups including the Heritage Foundation had been demanding the changes for years, arguing that waivers harmed both low-income adults as well as the businesses who wanted to employ them. 

But conservatives were unable to overcome Democratic resistance to including them in the 2014 and 2018 farm bills. Perdue announced the work requirement rule in December 2018 after Congress passed the new farm bill. 

"Work requirements work. The Trump administration understands this and is pursuing smart policy in an effort to move millions off the sidelines and back into the workforce," said Kristina Rasmussen, senior fellow at the Foundation for Government Accountability.

Critics of the rule say it will increase hunger and is especially unfair to veterans as well as people with undiagnosed mental illnesses who often have trouble getting and holding jobs. 

“The administration — contrary to the decision of Congress and the opinions of tens of thousands of Americans who commented — has decided to plow ahead with this plan to increase hunger and hardship for hundreds of thousands of struggling people,” said Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center.

Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat who chairs the subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee that oversees SNAP and other nutrition programs, called the new regulations an "unacceptable escalation of the Administration’s war on working families, and it comes during a time when too many are forced to stretch already-thin budgets to make ends meet. The USDA is the Grinch that stole Christmas. Shame on them."

Two states, Louisiana and New Mexico, currently have statewide waivers. Waivers also apply to the entirety of the District of Columbia and Virgin Islands. Thirty-two other states have partial waivers for select areas. Sixteen states and the territory of Guam have no waivers: Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Wyoming.

The existing waivers will expire March 31, according to a USDA document provided to state agencies. 

USDA has proposed two other major changes to SNAP rules that will further reduce the size and scope of the program. One rule would effectively lower income eligibility limits in many states by restricting automatic, or "categorical," eligibility provisions. The other proposal would change the way that utility costs are used to calculate SNAP benefits. 

Some 36.4 million people received SNAP benefits in July, the latest month for which data is available. Enrollment has been falling steadily for several years as the economy has improved. Average annual enrollment peaked at 47.6 million in 2013. 

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