U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced plans on Thursday to tighten rules governing food stamps, a move he said would help lift people out of poverty but safety-net advocates warned could harm low-income Americans.
If finalized, the former Georgia governor’s proposal would make the most significant changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, in years. It seeks 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 them weather tough economic times.
“Americans are generous people who believe it’s their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” Perdue told reporters late Wednesday. “But like other federal welfare programs it was never intended to be a permanent way of life.”
Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents are limited to three months of food stamps every three years unless they work at least 20 hours a week or participate in a workforce training program. States can apply for waivers from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to extend those benefits if they can provide evidence of “chronic, sustained high unemployment.”
Many states, including Georgia, applied for such waivers during the Great Recession and have sought extensions in the years since. Thirty-six states have federal waivers for some or all of their counties. Perdue said with the economy booming, cracking down on work requirements is warranted.
“Available jobs outnumber those seeking employment,” he said. “With these economic conditions it’s reasonable to expect able-bodied people who are neither working nor seeking work” to re-enter the labor force.
Among the changes proposed by Perdue on Thursday were allowing states to waive SNAP requirements only in areas where the unemployment rate tops 7 percent. Georgia’s was 3.6 percent last month, according to the state Department of Labor. Only two Georgia counties — Clay and Macon — have rates above 7 percent, according to October figures.
The changes would not apply to children, the elderly and disabled, who make up the vast majority of food stamp users. Roughly 9 percent of SNAP recipients are able-bodied adults without dependents, a top Agriculture Department official said earlier this year.
It was not immediately clear how the proposal — which is subject to public comment and must be finalized before going into effect — would affect Georgia. Roughly 1.5 million Georgians participated in SNAP in September 2018, according to federal data, and roughly 8 percent of them were classified as able-bodied adults by the state Division of Family and Children Services .
The state has gradually reinstated work requirements in many urban and suburban counties over the last several years, a policy that’s proven to be wildly popular among conservatives. It has led to a sharp decrease in enrollment in recent years. Slightly more than 40 percent of Georgia’s 159 counties still have waivers in place, according to DFCS, and the state has plans to roll out work requirements statewide in 2019.
Jenny Taylor, vice president of career services at Goodwill of North Georgia, said she’s not sure how the federal policy change would affect the job-seekers her organization works with. Goodwill of North Georgia partners with the state to help train job seekers and get them to work.
Braselton resident Leigh Hatfield went through the training program, getting certified in welding at Athens Technical College before getting a job at a local body shop. She said she received SNAP benefits from January until about May, when she got her job and made too much money to receive the assistance.
She supports the changes Perdue has proposed. “I never want to go back,” she said, adding that she’d received the benefits off-and-on over the last 10 years while working low-paying jobs in fast food or cleaning houses. “Not that I was ashamed or embarrassed to use my food stamp card. It just feels so much better cashing my check and going to the grocery store. Why you wouldn’t you want to better yourself or utilize these programs is beyond me.”
Critics contend that work requirements are mean-spirited and often discount people who aren’t able to hold jobs because of mental health issues, undiagnosed medical problems and criminal records.
Alex Camardelle, a senior policy analyst with the left-leaning Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, said about 40 percent of Georgia counties are not back to pre-recession levels of employment.
The proposed changes would also limit exemptions in “larger geographic areas that may include sections with sufficient available jobs,” a provision that could have major implications for metro Atlanta. Critics of Perdue’s plan said it could hit poorer rural areas of the state particularly hard, as well as communities of color and poorer patches of metro Atlanta.
Lauren Waits, director of government affairs for the Atlanta Community Food Bank, said the proposed changes appear to “restrict Georgia from extending SNAP benefits in high need areas.” Most of Georgia’s current waivers cover rural counties where between 20 and 38 percent of households use food stamps, she said.
“We are very concerned that new burdensome regulations would limit the state’s ability to decide where people need SNAP the most,” Waits said.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., estimated that “hundreds of thousands” of people nationwide could lose their food stamps under the proposed changes. The Washington Post put the number at roughly 755,000 people.
One of Perdue’s top deputies said the proposed changes would save the federal government $15 billion over a decade and cut down on waivers by 75 percent.
Farm bill redux
Perdue announced the proposed changes the same day that President Donald Trump signed the $867 billion farm bill. The compromise version approved by Congress omitted new work requirements and tightened eligibility rules sought by conservative Republicans in the House earlier this year. The changes pitched by Perdue aren’t quite as broad, but they’re seen as a consolation prize to those who wanted to overhaul the program.
“The best way out of poverty is a great job,” said U.S. Rep. Rick Allen, R-Evans, a member of the House Agriculture Committee who cheered the news Wednesday. “We’ve got 7 million jobs open in this country. Everywhere I go (companies) need people, and we need to give folks the opportunity to get great jobs.”
Camardelle said the proposed changes have the power to undercut protections in the farm bill.
“That farm bill is a very strong piece of legislation,” he said. “It’s bipartisan, it does away with harmful work requirements and it actually adds significant investments and strengthens the food stamp program for low-income people. The proposed rule however is a departure from that.”
Since becoming 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 last year.
SNAP costs the federal government roughly $70 billion a year and helps almost 40 million low-income people purchase their groceries each month.
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Staff reporter Chris Joyner contributed to this report.