Working at the behest of President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced this month the finalization of new food stamp rules which will curtail the ability of states to opt out of food stamp work requirements.
According to the department, the food stamp statute limits adults to three months of benefits in a three-year period unless they work or participate in work training for at least 20 hours per week. The law allows states to apply for waivers of the time limit due to economic conditions, but, prior to the new rule, the USDA says counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5% were included in waived areas.
Under USDA's new rule, which takes effect in April of next year, states retain only their statutory flexibility to waive the time limit in areas with unemployment at 6% or higher and to exempt a percentage of their able-bodied-adult-without-dependents caseload.
Agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue said the new rule would move more able-bodied recipients off the food stamp program, more formally called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), toward self-sufficiency and would restore the system to what Congress originally intended: assistance through difficult times, not a way of life.
"Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch," Perdue said. "Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand."
With such a strong economy, Perdue said, everyone who can work should work.
"This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them," he said.
Here in Wisconsin, Republicans praised Trump for enforcing the work requirements. In particular, state Sen. Chris Kapenga (R-Delafield) said the new rule merely closes a loophole in the program that allows states to skirt statutory intent. He also criticized Gov. Tony Evers for what Kapenga called Evers' attempt to stifle work requirements.
"Work is the only way anyone has been able to build a prosperous life for themselves and their family long term," Kapenga said. "The loophole that President Trump is closing will stop robbing people of their purpose by moving them back into the workforce. I find it ironic that opponents of this policy claim people are being thrown off of welfare when, in reality, they are being connected to work so they do not need to be dependent on government assistance."
That's something that should be celebrated, not ridiculed, Kapenga said.
Kapenga said there are more than 36 million Americans receiving SNAP benefits in the United States, at a time when the nation is experiencing its highest demand for workers in history.
"Nearly all of the employers I speak to are out searching for employees," he said. "Work is a winning scenario for everyone, so it is disappointing to see our governor intentionally stand in the way of human prosperity. His actions to veto funding for workforce programs that connect individuals to work as well as delay the implementation of work opportunities for those on Medicaid make me question if he is actually working for the people of Wisconsin."
Kapenga, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Public Benefits, Licensing, and State-Federal Relations, said he would be paying close attention to the Evers administration to ensure that the state was enforcing work requirements appropriately.
"This is not a political issue; it is a people issue," he said. "Let's do what is best for Wisconsin."
U.S. Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-Wisconsin) also praised the new rule.
"I am glad to see that President Trump and his administration are taking the initiative on welfare reform," Grothman said. "I am glad that we have a president who is putting the best interest of the country at the forefront. This is an important step in reforming welfare programs to help free capable individuals from government dependence and empower them to achieve the American Dream."
Grothman said the government should provide assistance to those who have fallen on hard times, but he said the work requirement waivers have been a part of what he called an unfortunate trend of government laws and regulations that create disincentives for individuals to work.
"Many times the system under previous administrations encouraged recipients not to work, discouraged recipients from marrying, and encouraged the sale of food stamps," he said. "Making work requirements mandatory will address all of these problems."
Supporters of the new rule say it is limited to able-bodied adults without dependents and does not affect parents with minor children, the elderly, or disabled. Two-thirds of all recipient able-bodied adults without dependents are exempt from the requirements, supporters say, and no one loses the benefit if they follow the work or training requirements.
Not everyone thinks the new rule will empower people to follow the American Dream, and many don't think the rule is a good deal for taxpayers.
U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) said food stamps probably saved her family.
"My family relied on food stamps (EBT) when my dad died at 48," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted this past week. "I was a student. If this happened then, we might've just starved. Now, many people will."
Claire Brown, a reporter for The New Food Economy, a nonprofit newsroom, reported on that organization's findings when it studied the impacts of expanded work requirements in Wisconsin, after the state imposed stricter eligibility rules in 2015.
"Many people simply dropped out of SNAP when the state began requiring that they work for 20 hours per week to continue receiving benefits," Brown wrote on the group's website. "The people who did enroll in the state's welfare-to-work program didn't fare much better: We found that one of the contractors hired to manage the transition only found jobs for roughly a third of participants."
What's more, the investigation found, the job training and placement program ultimately cost taxpayers $283 per participant per month, more than double the payout to the average SNAP recipient.
Finally, Brown reported, the state did not clearly communicate the new work requirements to enrollees.
"Many lost their benefits because they simply didn't receive phone calls and letters explaining the changes to SNAP eligibility," she wrote. "A former social worker tasked with signing beneficiaries up for the welfare-to-work program said many of them thought he was a scammer. Even people who did enroll in the program found it difficult to prove they were participating for the mandatory 20 hours per week, and some lost benefits because overworked case managers failed to submit accurate paperwork."
Estimates have varied wildly about how many people in Wisconsin would become ineligible for food stamp benefits under the new rule, but one study puts the number at 18% of those households that now receive the benefit, or more than 62,000 households.
Others peg the number far lower.
Richard Moore is the author of the forthcoming "Storyfinding: From the Journey to the Story" and can be reached at richardmoorebooks.com.
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