OMAHA (DTN) -- USDA on Thursday will propose a rule to tighten job requirements and state rules around people on food aid who are classified as "able-bodied adults without dependents."
USDA is attempting to implement, by rulemaking, a plan that got hung up in Congress, created a partisan divide in the House, was rejected in the Senate and eventually by the full Congress in adopting the 2018 farm bill.
The move comes as comes as President Donald Trump is scheduled to sign the 2018 farm bill into law Thursday afternoon. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue indicated in a press call Wednesday that USDA's moves would save $15 billion over 10 years "and give President Trump comfort enough to support a farm bill he might otherwise have opposed."
President Trump has repeatedly pushed for tighter SNAP work requirements through tweets and comments on the farm bill in the past several months. Those provisions failed to make it into the final farm bill, which passed both chambers of Congress last week with broad bipartisan support.
Perdue told reporters Trump will sign the farm bill that reinforces the farm safety net, but Congress "missed an opportunity" to tighten the rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, so USDA will move ahead and do so itself. Perdue said the welfare reform mantra of the 1990s that federal handouts "are a second chance, not a way of life" has gotten worn down by "out of control" state flexibility standards under SNAP.
With unemployment at 3.7% unemployment nationally -- the lowest since 1969 -- Perdue said it's reasonable to expect able-bodied people to look for work. Perdue and other USDA officials said the move will provide able-bodied adults without dependents more opportunities through work.
"Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch," Perdue said. "That is the commitment behind SNAP. But like other federal welfare programs, it was never intended to be a way of life."
Under the proposal, USDA would reduce the ability of states to broaden regions in their state subject to SNAP waivers for able-bodied adults without dependents who are chronically on SNAP aid. Like everything in the federal language, able-bodied adults without dependents has the acronym "ABAWDs."
USDA states there are 3.8 million ABAWDs on food aid, of which 2.8 million, or about 74%, are not working or undergoing some form of job-training program.
The cost savings announced by USDA -- $15 billion -- is significant because of the long-term math. If there are 3.8 million ABAWDs, they receive an average benefit of $126 a month, or $1,513 a year. That amounts to about $580 million a year. So if all 3.8 million people stopped taking SNAP that would generate about $5.8 billion in savings over 10 years. But USDA states its plan would save nearly three times more than that amount.
A USDA spokesman responded to DTN that USDA estimates that the proposal reduces spending on SNAP benefits by $15 billion over the years FY 2020-2029 because changes in the waiver standards will increase the number of ABAWDs subject to time limits (because they have not met work or training requirements). When the rule is published, the Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA) will reflect a five-year cost estimate (FY 2020-2024), with a savings of $7.9 billion. Both numbers reflect the same regulatory changes but over different time frames.
Reflecting the congressional division on the issue were opposing statements from leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture Committee. Outgoing House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas.
"This is an issue we took head-on in the House-passed farm bill, creating a roadmap for states to more effectively engage ABAWDs in this booming economy," Conaway said. "Paired with the farm bill's modernized E&T (education and training) programming and increased investment, this proposed rule will allow ABAWDs to seek new opportunities and achieve their goals. I applaud the proposed rule and proudly stand with the Trump administration in demonstrating the importance of state accountability and recipient success."
Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, assailed the plan and accused Perdue and USDA of going way beyond congressional intent.
"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. I expect the rule will face significant opposition and legal challenges," Stabenow said. "Administrative changes should not be driven by ideology. I do not support unilateral and unjustified changes that would take food away from families."
The farm bill conference report, Stabenow's office said, "explicitly states that waivers are necessary in areas with higher unemployment, and Congress intends to continue to give state SNAP agencies the responsibility for determining when and how waivers are submitted. Earlier this year, during the consideration of the Senate farm bill, 68 senators from both parties opposed an amendment that would have increased barriers for families on nutrition assistance and taken away states' rights to issue waivers."
Under the proposed rule, able-bodied adults without dependents would be able to receive SNAP benefits for three months in any three-year period, unless they work or take 20 hours of job training, language comparable to a provision removed from the final version of the farm bill.
USDA would also tighten state waivers for areas with higher unemployment and prevent states from "banking" potential waiver recipient figures for future years. Adding a little more politics to the rule, Perdue said governors also must personally sign waiver requests, showing they support the waivers.
USDA's rule has a 60-day comment period before it could be finalized. Given that the House of Representatives also flipped to Democratic control, it's also likely USDA's rule could end up blocked by specific language in appropriation bills going forward.
DTN Political Correspondent Jerry Hagstrom contributed to this report.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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