The Trump administration finalized a rule last week that will remove nearly 700,000 people from the federal food stamp program by changing its work requirements.
Under the rule, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed earlier this year, there are new unemployment standards required for states requesting time limit waivers for able-bodied adults without dependents that don’t meet work requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. These waivers had been previously issued to communities with significant economic distress and high unemployment rates.
With a national unemployment rate of 3.6 percent and 7 million job openings, the USDA argued that all able-bodied adults should be reentering the workforce. The rule will not affect children and parents, pregnant women, people over age 50 or people with a disability.
Kentucky residents won’t be affected by this rule because the state voluntarily opted in 2016 to gradually let waivers expire. The final eight counties will end waiver use Dec. 31, according to Christina Dettman, executive director of public affairs at the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services.
“That was set to happen with or without the new rule,” Dettman said in an email. “The number of Kentuckians impacted is zero.”
Gov.-elect Andy Beshear would have been able to reinstate the waivers next year if the new federal rule, which becomes effective April 1, had not been implemented.
Some critics argue the new rule could harm people’s ability to find work. Food stamps can help people avoid food insecurity and stay healthier, which would help people be in the position to obtain jobs, according to Dustin Pugel, a policy analyst at the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.
“This idea that restricting states’ ability to waive this is somehow going to help more people get to work is unfounded,” Pugel said. “There are many reasons that people struggle to get jobs, and food assistance isn’t one of them.”
Without waivers, able-bodied adults without children currently cannot receive food stamps for more than three months during a 36-month period without working or participating in a work program.
Some states have been able to grant waivers to areas that have insufficient jobs or a 24-month average unemployment rate that is at least 20 percent above the national average. Under the new rule, an area eligible for a waiver would have to have a 24-month average unemployment rate that is 20 percent above the national average and at least 6 percent.
The unemployment rate doesn’t reflect the number of people that are underemployed, according to Pugel, and excludes broader economic issues and individual difficulties such as a lack of transportation.
“The unemployment rate doesn’t show the whole picture,” Pugel said.
USDA proposed two other rules that experts have suggested will likely be approved in the next year, and both would affect Kentuckians.
The second proposal would cut food stamp eligibility from people with incomes up to 200 percent of the poverty level – about $50,000 for a family of four – and prevent households with more than $2,250 in assets, or $3,500 for a household with a disabled adult, from receiving food stamps. To determine assets, whether a second vehicle or family land, case workers will have to track bank statements and use assessors, which Pugel described as “incredibly cumbersome” and costly. Previously, the state could opt to waive the asset tests.
“That is an additional thing that families applying for SNAP would have to provide documentation for,” said Laura Wheaton, senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “Nationally, households with people 60 and above are the most likely to be affected.”
These changes could affect 3 million people, and about 1 million children could lose automatic eligibility for free or reduced-price school meals.
The third proposal would cut $4.5 billion from the program over five years by adjusting eligibility formulas.
If USDA had finalized all three rules last year, nearly 4 million people would have lost food assistance and nearly 1 million school children would have lost access to free or reduced-price school meals, according to an Urban Institute study released last month.
There could be cascading effects from people losing food stamp eligibility.
Fewer people enrolled in the food stamp program would probably translate into more people turning to food banks, according to Monica Ruehling, marketing and communications coordinator for the Elizabethtown-based regional food bank, Feeding America, Kentucky’s Heartland.
“If those cuts are made, people will need to look to other resources,” Ruehling said.
Tamara Sandberg, Feeding Kentucky executive director, said food banks might not be able to meet that need.
“The food pantries are already struggling to provide enough food,” Sandberg said. “It’s going to increase the demand on the charitable sector.”
– Follow reporter Caroline Eggers on Twitter @eggers dailynews or visit bgdaily news.com.