USDA Proposed Rule Undercuts State Flexibility, Puts Families at Greater Risk of Hunger

Over the past several months, MBPC has been busy with the Montana Legislative session, but SNAP is – again – at risk at the federal level. Just months after Congress renewed the federal nutrition assistance program, SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps) in the Farm Bill, which left the current area waiver provisions in place, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a rule that would take away food assistance from unemployed and struggling workers through harsh cuts and changes to SNAP.

For context, in 1996 Congress enacted time limits on SNAP for able-bodies adults without dependents (ABAWDS) who were unable to document sufficient hours of work each month. ABAWDs can only receive SNAP benefits for three months within a three-year period unless they can document work activities of 20 hours or more per week. In that decision, Congress also provided that states could request waivers from the USDA on these time limits. Right now, the statutory language allows states to waive the time limit for areas of the state with unemployment rates of 10 percent or higher or with a lack of sufficient jobs. Current regulations allow states to waive areas with an average unemployment rate at least 20 percent above the national average for a recent 24-month period. This is how the vast majority of areas are eligible for waivers. The area waivers are important safety valves for protecting food assistance for people who are seeking but unable to find sufficient hours of work.

The USDA’s recently announced rule proposal arbitrarily narrows states’ ability to waive the time limit in areas with insufficient jobs and expands work requirements for those receiving food assistance. The proposed rule change tightens the criteria states can use to waive work requirements in areas that have high unemployment. The USDA is calling for those waivers to be limited to one year, down from two. It also wants to remove states’ ability to “bank” or carry over waivers for future years and would require that waivers be restricted to areas were local unemployment is 7 percent or greater. In short, the regulations lower the threshold by 3 percent but propose a number of other more restrictive changes that would limit those who are eligible.

Montana’s most rural communities and tribal communities would be hit the hardest by this rule change. In Montana, SNAP helps 122,000 individuals put food on the table. Currently, this geographic waiver for SNAP is critical to 25 counties and six American Indian reservation communities (Blackfeet Reservation, Crow Reservation, Fort Belknap Reservation, Fort Peck Reservation, Northern Cheyenne Reservation and Rocky Boy’s Reservation).

Applying a 7 percent unemployment rate as the “floor” is an arbitrary choice and does not allow for state flexibility. Montana’s important waiver flexibility has helped our state weather local economic downturns, respond to disasters, and support residents who are doing their best in areas with few suitable jobs. Making waivers far harder to get would force states to impose the time limit even in areas with few jobs and no job training.

Had this rule been in effect in 2018, 20 out of 25 counties in the most rural parts of Montana would have lost their waivers. Thousands of individuals would be subject to this unrealistic and punitive provision to limit SNAP benefits.

Currently, Flathead County has an unemployment rate of 6.7 percent, which is far higher than the state average (3.8 percent unemployment) or national average (4.0 percent unemployment). Consequently, hundreds of Montanans in Flathead County would have been unable to receive SNAP benefits for more than three months over the course of three years if the USDA’s proposed rule had been in place in 2018.

Those who would be hurt by this rule change are extremely vulnerable, often living on incomes $12,140 per year or less. They include veterans, people struggling with mental illness or addiction, and adults living in rural areas without access to transportation. Taking food assistance away from these individuals will not help them find work, it will leave them hungrier and further from economic stability. By USDA’s own estimates, the proposal would eliminate SNAP benefits for 755,000 Americans and cut SNAP by $15 billion over ten years.

The Montana Budget and Policy Center is submitting a written comment opposing the USDA rule change because forcing individuals to go without food assistance does not help them find work in already challenging environments with a small labor pool and high unemployment. If you or your organization wants to submit a comment, you can submit your comment directly through regulations.gov.

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