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Trump administration changes food stamp rule, eliminating benefits for hundreds of thousands

The move circumvents Congress and is expected by anti-hunger advocates to increase food insecurity across the nation.

A sign advertises a program that allows food stamp recipients to use their EBT cards to shop at a farmer's market in Topsham, Maine.
A sign advertises a program that allows food stamp recipients to use their EBT cards to shop at a farmer's market in Topsham, Maine.Read moreRobert F. Bukaty / AP

An estimated 700,000 low-income people will lose their food stamps based on a new rule instituted Wednesday by the Trump administration, a move that circumvents the will of Congress and that anti-hunger advocates say will worsen food insecurity.

In a statement, the secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, whose agency oversees food stamps, said the action was taken at the direction of President Donald Trump.

About 90,000 Pennsylvanians, including 38,000 Philadelphians, would lose food stamps, now called SNAP benefits (for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), according to the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. In New Jersey, 50,000 recipients would lose benefits, state figures show.

The new rule, to go into effect in April, will tighten work requirements for non-disabled SNAP recipients between 18 and 49 with no minor children.

Perdue said that while "government can be a powerful force for good ... government dependency had 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.

“Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work to work.”

Advocates who fight hunger were quick to decry the rule.

“It’s a deeply flawed and ill-conceived policy change,” said James Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center in Washington, the nation’s largest anti-hunger lobby. “This action flies in the face of congressional intent, coming almost a year after Congress passed the Farm Bill that left the current ... provisions in place.”

He added that the change will “take food off the tables” of hundreds of thousands of people who receive an average of $160 a month in SNAP benefits.

Since 1996, people aged 18 to 49 without dependents have had to work at least 20 hours a week or be in school or job training to receive SNAP benefits. Anyone not following the rule would be limited to three months of benefits over a three-year period.

States, however, have been permitted to waive the time-limit rules in places of high unemployment. Philadelphia has long fallen into that category. Although most working-age SNAP participants have jobs, many sometimes dip below 20 working hours a week through no fault of their own, according to Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition. She added that many jobs today are part-time and subject to unstable schedules and fluctuating hours.

The new rule will raise the minimum unemployment rate for waivers to be granted to 6%.

Since 1996, all Pennsylvania governors of both parties have sought waivers from the time limit.

While the unemployment rate has improved, Fisher said, many Philadelphians aren’t measured in unemployment statistics because they gave up looking for work years ago.

Also in Philadelphia, there are significant barriers to work, Fisher said, including those faced by people who have been incarcerated and can’t get hired.

Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the nonprofit Coalition on Human Needs in Washington, said that the Trump administration changed the rule after the USDA received more than 100,000 comments from around the country criticizing its formulation.

“It’s been the Trump administration’s strategy to foment hostility to people who are out of luck and find it hard to get jobs,” she said.

The new rule appears to base its intellectual underpinning on policy developed at the conservative Heritage Foundation, experts say. Work requirements “represent a step toward an important goal,” a foundation report said. They combine “the principles of compassion and fairness in federal welfare policy.”

The rule is one of three proposed by the Trump administration in 2019 whose apparent aim is to truncate SNAP benefits. If all the rules are adopted, around three million people would lose benefits, and one million children would lose automatic eligibility for free or reduced-price school lunches, analysts say.

“The bottom line is people will be hungrier,” said Joel Berg, CEO of Hunger Free America, a nonprofit in New York City.

Berg called the administration’s rule change a “political” move to assuage Trump voters who are “not happy with their lives and need to be angry at some nameless Other.”

He added that the administration is not offering funding to help people with job training programs. Further, he said, “if the administration really wants to support work, it should increase the minimum wage.”

Berg said he believes the administration will be taken to court to try to overturn the rule.

But if the rule holds, that could mean hard times for the Philadelphia area, said Kate Scully, director of government affairs for Philabundance, the region’s largest hunger-relief agency.

“We are pushing out 25 million pounds of food a year to 350 cupboards and emergency kitchens, serving 90,000 people in the area,” Scully said.

Already, she said, nearly three-quarters of a million city residents don’t have enough food.

"If this rule change adds another 38,000 to those who are hungry, it’s going to mean more lines at food cupboards and less food for people. We cannot make up the difference.

“Remember, people are still going to need to eat. That’s never going to end.”