Federal changes to food stamp program could boot 54,000 Georgians

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced new rules Wednesday to tighten access to food stamps, a move he said would help lift people out of poverty while safety-net advocates warned the changes could harm low-income Americans.

The former Georgia governor announced the changes during a call with reporters. Some call them the most significant changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, in years. The new rules could cut hundreds of thousands of Americans from the SNAP rolls.

The changes, first proposed last year, seek to crack down on the waivers the Department of Agriculture gives states — including Georgia — from food stamp work requirements. The federal government has long had such requirements in place for able-bodied adults who aren't caretakers or disabled, but Perdue said too many states were taking advantage of exemptions meant to help recipients weather tough economic times.

Under current law, able-bodied adults between ages 18 and 49 without dependents can’t receive SNAP benefits for more than three months during a three-year period unless they’re working or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month.

States can apply to waive the time limits placed on childless adults living in counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5%. The new rule will require a county to have an unemployment rate of 6% before the work requirement can be waived.

There are about 54,000 childless Georgia adults who receive SNAP and are not subjected to the federal time limits, according to state data. But they would be in April under the new rules.

“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” Perdue told reporters on the call. “We want to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not an infinitely giving hand.”

Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said he doesn’t believe the rule change takes into account a variety of factors that can prevent SNAP recipients from keeping a job, such as mental health, transportation issues or hiring discrimination.

“We’re not against work,” he said. “We just don’t want folks to lose critical assistance because of reasons that are out of their control.

“The neutral framing of personal responsibility has really hamstrung us and convinced us that bootstrap-mentality tactics are effective to overcome the systemic barriers that affect people in rural Georgia, people of color and even women that run deep,” Camardelle said.

Georgia Division of Family and Children Services Director Tom Rawlings said the rule change is in line with the agency’s mission.

“We have the Office of Family Independence,” he said. “It’s called that. It’s not called the Office of Family Dependence. Our obligation to the public is to assist individuals who are able to work.”

States have six months to implement the federal changes. The USDA estimates that about 688,000 people could be dropped from SNAP when the proposal takes effect.

It was not immediately clear how the proposal would affect Georgia. Roughly 1.4 million Georgians received SNAP benefits in September, according to state data. About 76,000, or 5.5%, of those recipients were classified as able-bodied adults by DFCS.

Among the changes announced Wednesday, the waiver could only apply in areas where the unemployment rate tops 6%. Georgia's rate was 3% in October, according to the state Department of Labor. Only three Georgia counties — Clay, Telfair and Wheeler — had rates above 6%, according to the October figures.

The changes will not apply to children, the elderly and disabled, who make up the vast majority of food stamp users. Roughly 7% of SNAP recipients nationwide are able-bodied adults without dependents, USDA officials said.

The state has gradually reinstated work requirements in many urban and suburban counties over the past several years, a policy that’s proved to be popular among conservative lawmakers. It has led to a sharp decrease in enrollment in recent years.

Slightly more than 40% of Georgia’s 159 counties still have waivers in place, according to DFCS, and the state pushed back plans to roll out work requirements statewide this year due to the pending rule changes. Rawlings said the division plans to reinstate the requirement in the remaining counties by April 1.

“It is not a question of any punitive thing. It’s a question of assisting people to do what almost everybody wants to do — which is be productive,” Rawlings said.

Camardelle said he worried about implementing new SNAP rules as economists warn of another recession.

“Across the board there seems to be a sentiment that we could be facing an economic downturn in the near future,” he said. “For us to move to a point where we know the economy is slowing down … why are we taking away a solid resource that families need, particularly those who experience poverty, to defend against the harm of a recession?”

The USDA is also reviewing two additional rule changes that could restrict access to SNAP — changing the way states consider utility costs, including winter heating bills, when determining household eligibility for food stamps and giving states more flexibility in determining who is eligible for food stamps.

Since becoming the nation’s agriculture chief, Perdue has led the push for expanded work requirements. In addition to championing the House version of the farm bill, he pitched a widely panned proposal to replace roughly half of SNAP benefits with a “harvest box” of federally selected foods in 2017.

SNAP costs the federal government roughly $70 billion a year and helps almost 40 million low-income people buy their groceries each month. Brandon Lipps, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food nutrition and consumer services, said tightening the work requirement would save the federal government about $5.5 billion over five years.

The announcement comes shortly after the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, released a study that found benefits would be reduced in most states under the planned changes.

Northeastern states would see large reductions, and households with elderly people, those with disabilities and able-bodied adults without dependents would be the most affected. More than 500,000 households with children would lose eligibility, according to the think tank, and more than 1 million people would receive smaller benefits.

According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis, rural Georgians are more likely to need the help of food stamps to pay for their groceries, but that public help probably doesn't stretch as far as it does in places such as Atlanta because of higher food prices in small-town stores.