Trump administration wants more people to work for food stamps

Feeding America's most vulnerable children
Feeding America's most vulnerable children

First Medicaid. Now food stamps.

The Trump administration is pushing to require more recipients of government aid to work for benefits.

The focus this week turned to those on food stamps. The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced that it will work with states to "promote self-sufficiency" and give them greater local control over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, the formal name for food stamps.

The move is in keeping with longstanding Republican beliefs.

"SNAP was created to provide people with the help they need to feed themselves and their families, but it was not intended to be a permanent lifestyle," said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue. "We want to provide the nutrition people need, but we also want to help them transition from government programs, back to work and into lives of independence."

The agency last week sent a letter to all state food stamp coordinators listing three key areas of focus. The first one: self-sufficiency.

Related: Trump administration open to making some Medicaid recipients work

"The American dream has never been to live on government benefits," wrote Brandon Lipps, the agency's Food and Nutrition Service administrator. "People who can work should work. We must facilitate the transition for individuals and families to become independent, specifically by partnering with key stakeholders in the workforce development community and holding our recipients accountable for personal responsibility."

The other areas the agency cited are rooting out waste, fraud and abuse and providing good customer service.

Some 41.3 million people receive food stamps, down from more than 47 million in 2013, when the nation was still recovering from the Great Recession.

Trump administration officials and congressional Republicans have said multiple times in recent weeks that they will look at overhauling the nation's welfare system once they are done with tax reform.

"Does anybody want welfare reform?" Trump said to applause in a speech in Missouri last week. "I know people, they work three jobs and they live next to somebody who doesn't work at all. And the person who's not working at all and has no intention of working at all is making more money and doing better than the person that's working his and her ass off ... So we're going to go into welfare reform."

The Agriculture Department's letter mirrors one sent by the Department of Health and Human Services in March inviting states to apply for waivers that would add work requirements to Medicaid. The Obama administration had denied state requests to mandate that Medicaid recipients work.

The food stamp program, however, already requires childless adults to work, and states can impose additional employment or training rules, experts said. All states run work programs, but only about half make them mandatory and take away recipients' benefits if they don't comply. In some states, parents are also required to work.

Adults without minor children can only receive benefits for three months out of every 36-month period unless they are working or participating in training programs 20 hours a week. States can waive that requirement for areas where unemployment is at least 10% or there is an insufficient number of jobs, as defined by the Department of Labor.

The Trump administration's budget proposal earlier this year called for limiting the waivers to areas where unemployment is at least 10%. Currently, about one-third of the country lives in an area that waives this requirement, according to the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Under the Trump budget, only 1.3% of the nation would.

Related: Republicans want the poor to work for their government benefits

Many food stamp recipients already work. In households that receive SNAP and have at least one non-disabled adult, 58% are employed and 82% worked in the year prior to or after enrollment, according to the left-leaning Center for American Progress.

While Republicans have long favored adding work requirements to welfare programs, experts on both sides of the ideological divide question how effective they would be. Many recipients already work, and those that don't often can't because of physical or mental health conditions or because of a lack of job opportunities.

"If you really want people to have upward mobility, there has to be upward mobility to something," said Joe Antos, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. "In a lot of places in the U.S., there are no jobs."

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