White House

Trump administration wants huge limits on food stamps — even though Congress said ‘no’

A lot more people could have to meet work requirements for food aid under a Trump administration plan unveiled early Thursday, just before the president signed legislation that’s supposed to keep the current food aid eligibility system largely in place.

The proposed administration limits will have a significant impact in California, where in the application period lasting from September to August 2019 55 of 58 counties qualified for federal exemptions from work rules. That allowed officials to give the food assistance to more people.

People granted the exemptions could receive food aid for more than three months in a three-year period even if they didn’t meet the 20-hour work requirement. Under the new administration proposal, far fewer people would be granted that exemption.

President Donald Trump signed the farm bill Thursday that was passed by Congress last week after months of painstaking negotiations. Earlier in the day, thanks to loose language in the law, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue proposed new requirements that would severely limit which parts of the country qualified for those exemptions.

He estimated his plan would cut the amount of able-bodied people who receive food assistance without meeting work requirements by 75 percent nationwide and save $15 billion over 10 years.

There are typically 90-day comment periods on proposed rules before they can be finalized.

“President Trump ordered me to propose regulatory reforms to ensure those able to work do so in exchange for their benefit,” Perdue said, citing a booming economy and low unemployment as reasons for the change.

Able-bodied adults under age 50 without young dependent children are currently required to work or go through work training for at least 20 hours per week to receive help from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, for more than three months over a three-year period.

There are certain exceptions to that rule. If a county or state has an unemployment rate of at least 10 percent or 20 percent above the national rate for a two-year period, officials can exempt recipients from meeting the work requirements in order to receive their benefits for more than three months.

But in California, those exceptions are also applied to contiguous counties — meaning a county with a low unemployment rate can combine with a neighboring county with a higher unemployment rate so they both qualify for more generous benefits.

Perdue’s proposed rule would only allow counties and states to apply for exceptions to work requirements if an unemployment rate is above 7 percent, and it would not allow counties to be combined.

The new proposed rule would also require a governor’s explicit approval for applications for exceptions.

With the new rules, three counties in California would qualify for the exceptions based on unemployment numbers in October — Tulare, Imperial and Colusa counties.

Many of the new proposed rules, such as raising waiver requirements and requiring documented governor approval, were explicitly rejected by Democrats during congressional negotiations over the farm bill.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Michigan, the lead Senate Democratic bill negotiator, promised to fight Perdue’s limits.

“This regulation blatantly ignores the bipartisan farm bill that the president is signing today and disregards over 20 years of history giving states flexibility to request waivers based on local job conditions,” Stabenow said in a statement Thursday. “I expect the rule will face significant opposition and legal challenges.”

Trump praised Perdue’s announcement at the bill signing with Stabenow standing right behind him.

“Under this new rule able-bodied adults without dependents will have to work or look for work in order to receive food stamps,” Trump said moments before signing the farm bill.

Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, the lead House Republican pushing for more stringent SNAP work requirements in the farm bill, praised the changes in a statement Thursday, saying it demonstrated “the importance of state accountability and recipient success.”

That’s a 180 degree flip from what Conaway said earlier this year, when he was negotiating the farm bill, when Conaway said Perdue did not have the authority to do this.

“The Senate is perpetuating the same bad government solution to having the executive branch ignore the law and ignoring the legislative branch,” Conaway said in September. “So, it’s our job to fix it and then once we get the law fixed, it’s the Secretary’s responsibly to implement the new law, not fix the existing broken system that’s allowing waivers to be abused.”

McClatchyDC Reporter Bryan Lowry contributed to this report.

Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.