President Donald Trump has an opportunity to do what Congress should be doing, but isn’t: Help Americans who are on food stamps transition to work.
The farm bill—which reauthorizes the foods stamp program for five years—would have been a prime opportunity for Congress to enhance work requirements. Under current law, certain work-capable adults must work 20 or more hours per week, participate in a supervised job search or training, or volunteer in their communities in order to receive food stamps.
Most food stamp recipients are exempt from these requirements. These include people over 50 years old, the disabled, and minor children and their parents. That leaves 7 million people who are expected to fulfill work requirements.
Unfortunately, only 1.5 million of the 7 million actually satisfy the work requirement.
How is this possible?
Most states exploit a loophole in the law that allows them to waive work requirements for all individuals residing in any “area” that “does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for the individuals.” Existing regulations interpret this provision of the law to allow, for example, an area with an unemployment rate as low as 4.8 percent to qualify for a waiver when the national unemployment rate stands at 4 percent. They also leave the definition of the key term “area” to the states.
New York, California, and Illinois have gone so far as to define areas as large or small as necessary to just meet the minimum required unemployment rate and maximize the number of food stamp recipients living in waived areas. This approach undermines the purpose of the work requirements and ensures that millions of work-capable adults are not required to look for work even once in order to receive food stamps.
The House proposed to address these problems in the 2018 farm bill with techniques that would have resulted in 2.8 million work-capable food stamp recipients facing mandatory work requirements. Unfortunately, Congress took a pass on these reforms.
Reform is still urgently needed, and in the absence of congressional action, the Trump administration should do what it can under its existing regulatory authority to effect that reform.
Under existing law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture can address some of the worst abuses in the current program. It should issue a regulation to do so through two key changes.
First, the USDA should explicitly define the term “area” to mean a labor market area as defined by the Department of Labor based on commuting patterns. The labor market area corresponds closely to the area in which a food stamp recipient could reasonably be expected to look for work. And these areas are not subject to gaming by the states.
Second, the USDA should interpret the insufficient jobs criterion more narrowly. Specifically, it should go as far as it can under current law and limit work requirement waivers to areas with a current unemployment rate in excess of 10 percent—or federal disaster areas, in which it would be unfair to withhold benefits from those who are unable to satisfy the work activities requirement.
In terms of sheer numbers, these regulatory changes could be more substantial than those envisioned by the House, requiring work from as many as 4.5 million individual food stamp recipients who are not already satisfying the work requirement.
Regulatory changes can’t fix every problem in the food stamp program. For that, we’ll need Congress to act. But issuing new rules helping food stamp recipients get back to work would be a strong first step toward implementing the principle that work-capable adults who receive taxpayer-funded benefits should be expected to work, or at least seek and prepare for work, as a condition of receiving assistance.
More than 90 percent of Americans agree with this important concept. It’s time for the president to deliver.