WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is moving ahead with its plan to enact strict work requirements on people who use food stamps despite the coronavirus pandemic — a move that could result in hundreds of thousands of people losing their eligibility for the program.
People could soon be forced to work public-facing jobs when they should stay home or else risk losing access to the assistance they get to buy food.
The Department of Agriculture confirmed this week it is sticking to its timeline to tighten work requirements starting April 1. People without a disability or children must work 20 hours per week to qualify for SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program formerly known as food stamps.
The White House projects 700,000 people would lose SNAP eligibility. Lauren Bauer, a fellow with the Brookings Institution, filed access to information requests for figures from all 50 states and projected the number of people losing assistance would be much higher, at 1.3 million to 1.5 million.
But those projections all came out before the novel coronavirus swept across the United States, causing a wave of self-quarantines and threatening economic downturn.
“That number is going to be much, much higher,” she said. “It’s going to cause harm both to the people who are eligible for SNAP, but it’s also going to cause harm for the economy.”
One fear in particular is that those who work in the service industry or gig economy will see their hours cut as would-be customers stay inside rather than go out to restaurants, bars, and sporting events. If those workers fall below 80 hours per month, they can be kicked off SNAP. There’s also a public health issue: Hourly workers may go to their jobs while they feel ill, a dangerous proposition when officials are recommending most people stay home to help stop the spread of the disease.
The Trump administration had considered delaying the April 1 start day for the rule change but ultimately decided to stay on schedule, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue confirmed on Tuesday to a House Appropriations Subcommittee.
Since the mid-’90s, adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without a disability or children have been required to work 80 hours per month, or they are capped at three months of SNAP eligibility over three years. But states are currently waiving that requirement in high-unemployment areas. The Trump administration rule change would make it harder for states to get those waivers.
Perdue said the administration, however, determined states can mitigate the effects of the coronavirus on SNAP enrollment through “good cause” waivers. These exemptions apply when someone has a good cause for missing work, such as falling ill or an office building being shut down due to infection. They can be authorized at the state level and do not need to be approved federally.
“Whether you are sick or your job says you can’t come to work, the good cause will eliminate need for work requirements under this rule,” Perdue said in a statement released to BuzzFeed News.
Experts have raised concerns that good cause waivers need to be processed on a case-by-case basis. This can cause case managers to become overloaded, and people may not even know they are able to make such claims.
It also just seems like an odd time to be forcing people to go out and work 80 hours of predominantly public-facing jobs, said Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Because “good cause” is a relatively obscure provision, he said, it is not clear whether someone with a sick spouse would have cause to stay home from their food service job, even if that’s medically wise.
“It just seems shortsighted and counterproductive to condition SNAP benefits on making those kinds of decisions during a public health emergency,” he said.
Democratic Rep. Barbara Lee repeatedly pressed Perdue to delay the rule change until the coronavirus was no longer a threat, as well as taking other steps to expand the social safety net. “Really it’s a cruel rule, taking food out of the mouths of hungry individuals,” she said. “Why can’t we just postpone or delay this at least until at least this critical moment is over?”
But Perdue said any response to the coronavirus involving food programs would need to be approved by both the White House and Congress as part of a “one government approach” to the problem.
House Democrats included a blanket work requirement waiver during the length of the coronavirus outbreak in their signature legislation they introduced to address the crisis. However, that policy package was rebuffed in the Senate, where Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell denounced the bill for creating a “thicket of bureaucracy” that will kill thousands of jobs. What measures ultimately get passed will depend on negotiations between Congress and the White House.