WASHINGTON — U.S. Department of Agriculture officials stressed the importance of the “dignity of work” while announcing a final rule that they estimate will kick 688,000 people off the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

“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,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said.

Perdue and USDA Deputy Under Secretary Brandon Lipps explained the new rule, to be published Dec. 5 in the Federal Register, during a call with media on Wednesday, Dec. 4. The rule, which will go into effect 120 days after publication, will apply only to able-bodied adults between 18 and 49 who do not have dependents. It does not apply to children, parents, people older than 50, people who have disabilities or pregnant women.

Nutrition advocacy groups said the rules will lead to higher rates of hunger and poverty.

“SNAP plays a critical role in addressing hunger and food insecurity in all corners of the country. With this rule, the administration sets out to weaken this proven program instead of strengthening it by providing more adequate benefits,” a statement from the Food Research and Advocacy Center said.

But Perdue and Lipps said the changes return the program to its congressional intent.

“Congress never intended this program to be one that disincentivized work,” Lipps said.

Able-bodied adults without dependents, often referred to as “ABAWDs,” have been limited to three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period unless they work or participate in work training for at least 20 hours per week or do qualified volunteer work. The law has allowed for states to apply for waivers of the time limit because of economic conditions in a given area. Perdue and Lipps, however, said those waivers have continued on even after conditions have improved, and 74% of the ABAWD subset is not working.

Under the new rule, Labor Market Areas, rather than entire states, will be waived when economic conditions are poor. The rule will limit the length of time waivers can continue and will use an unemployment rate of 6% as a basis for waivers.

During the Wednesday call, Perdue quoted former President Bill Clinton, who in 1996 signed the welfare reform act that established the current SNAP program, previously known as food stamps: “First and foremost, it should be about moving people from welfare to work. It should impose time limits on welfare... It (work) gives structure, meaning and dignity to most of our lives.

“And that’s exactly what we’re doing today,” Perdue said.

When the rule originally was proposed, USDA estimated it could eliminate 750,000 people from the SNAP roles. On Wednesday, Lipps revised that to 688,000 and said the change could save $5.5 million. The cost of SNAP in fiscal year 2018 was more than $60.4 billion. As of August 2019, more than 36 million people were on SNAP, though most do not fall into the ABAWD category.

Perdue said states have been made aware of the change and are eligible for uncapped 50/50 matching grants for workforce training programs.

Of 50 states and three districts or territories, only four — District of Columbia, Louisiana, New Mexico and Virgin Islands — have waivers for the entirety of their geography in the first quarter of fiscal year 2020, according to USDA data. Another 32 states — including Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota — have partial waivers. Seventeen states have no waivers.

The rule on ABAWDs is only one of several proposals the USDA is considering to tighten up nutrition program eligibility. Other rules still being evaluated include the types of government benefits that automatically qualify families for SNAP and the approach to calculating standard utility allowances. Lipps said no final action has been taken on those rules.

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