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SNAP Recipients Could Lose Benefits Under New Rule


The Trump administration is tightening work requirements for some food stamp recipients. This change could cut nearly 700,000 people from the Federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, also known as SNAP. This new rule makes it more difficult for states to waive a requirement that able-bodied adults without children work at least 20 hours a week or else lose their benefits.

Elaine Waxman has been researching the possible impact this could have across the country. She's a senior fellow at the Urban Institute and joins us this morning. Thanks for coming on.

ELAINE WAXMAN: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

GREENE: So what kind of impact should we expect from this?

WAXMAN: Well, I think it could be really significant. As you noted, the administration itself suggests that about 700,000 adults are likely to lose benefits as a result of this change, and they don't expect them to actually find employment. So that's very concerning because we know that SNAP is a very effective program. It reduces food insecurity. It reduces poverty. It improves health outcomes. And so all else being equal, when fewer people are on SNAP who need it, we would expect more negative outcomes.

GREENE: Just, you know, listening to the administration announce this yesterday, the agricultural secretary, Sonny Perdue, said, quote, "we need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand." I mean, Purdue is making the point that, you know, that the role of Congress, the role of American taxpayers is to help people through difficult times, but that it's not open-ended. Is it unreasonable at some point to ask able-bodied adults to work 20 hours a week to keep these benefits?

WAXMAN: I don't think anybody on SNAP would think it was unreasonable either. The bigger question is whether people are able to maintain stable work at a regular number of hours. It's true that the economy overall has greatly improved and - but that sort of general rate masks a lot of variation among counties and cities and states.

And in addition, we have to remember that not all people face the same unemployment rate. So a number of people in this category may have fairly limited education. They may have less than a high school diploma. They may be unstably housed. Many of them have mental health or physical health conditions that interfere with work.

And what we know from data is that when SNAP participants are able to work, they frequently do. So the characterization that somehow it's a way of life, I think was the phrase that was used, is just not borne out by the data.

GREENE: Well, you mentioned that a lot of people find it hard to find stable work. I mean, what are the requirements? I mean, could you volunteer for a certain number of hours a week and keep another job for some hours and build up to 20 hours and use that as a justification for benefits if you need to?

WAXMAN: Well, you can meet it in a couple of different ways. It's true that it's about 80 hours a month. And, you know, what we often see is that some people have no trouble meeting that at certain parts of the year. For example, they might have seasonal work, but other weeks they might not get any hours.

One of the things that people can do is enroll in a SNAP employment and training program. The problem is that there are many more people who would benefit from that program than there are available slots.

And the other thing that we know about those programs is that the number one activity that's usually supported is job referral or resume enhancement. And those are not things that necessarily connect people directly to stable employment.

GREENE: So it sounds like there's some other - I mean, if this does go through - and we should say it's - you know, this could face litigation. It's not 100% clear that this rule will go in. But there are other things that people like you might lobby the government to do to help people if this rule goes into place.

WAXMAN: Yes, I think that's a really good point. When we focus on work rules, we're not focusing on, really, the first part of that question which is work and the nature of work in the 21st century. So a lot more focus needs to be on the quality of that work and in helping people connect with stable work.

GREENE: Elaine Waxman with the Urban Institute, thanks so much for joining us this morning.

WAXMAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.