As I detailed in April, House Republicans tried to enact a deep food-stamp reform through the farm bill this year. That failed — but so did an effort to block the president from changing the program through executive action, and the Trump administration has now offered some regulatory adjustments.
The proposed rule, which if finalized will take effect in October of next year, is far more limited than what the House farm bill would have done; and as always, I wish Congress would make important decisions by statute rather than punting them to the executive. But this is a substantial change nonetheless, it is limited to decisions that Congress has punted, and it addresses legitimate problems with the status quo.
The food-stamp program has fairly strict work requirements for “able-bodied adults without dependents,” or “ABAWDs” to those in the know: They’re kicked off if they’re not working or engaging in other approved activities within three months. However, at the discretion of the Department of Agriculture (which for some reason is in charge of food stamps), a state can get a waiver for ABAWDs in an area that has unemployment above 10 percent or “does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for the individuals.”
You can probably guess the problem with the second part of that statutory language: Current regulations implementing it are pretty broad. Waivers are “readily approvable” to any area with an unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average over a two-year period, meaning that if the national unemployment rate is 5 percent, a rate of 6 percent is sufficient. (Twenty percent of five is one.) In other words, when nationwide unemployment is low, some areas will be exempt simply because unemployment isn’t quite as low there. The current regulations also allow waivers of fairly large regions, such as multiple counties grouped together or even entire states, and allow states to effectively gerrymander their waiver requests to make more people eligible for food stamps.
According to the USDA, “nearly half of ABAWDs receiving SNAP now live in waived areas.” As of two years ago, there were nearly 4 million ABAWDs on SNAP, about a tenth of the program’s total enrollment.
The rule would tighten up on all of that. Areas could no longer get a waiver for having relatively high unemployment without an absolute rate above 7 percent — though the department is seeking comment on whether 6 or 10 percent might be better — and there would be stricter limits on how geographic areas are defined. The proposal would also put more restrictions on the case-by-case exemptions states are allowed to give.
This rule is 55 pages long, and we may see legitimate technical criticisms. But the basic idea here is sound, and if Congress has a different vision for the program, it should do its job and write that vision into the law.