The US Department of Agriculture has finalised a rule tightening work requirements for government food assistance.
The administration of United States President Donald Trump on Wednesday said it will make it harder for states to keep men and women in the country’s food stamp programme, a move that is projected to end benefits for nearly 700,000 people.
Trump has argued that many Americans receiving food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, do not need it given the strong economy and low unemployment. The programme provides free food to 36 million Americans.
The administration has finalised a rule that tightens guidelines on when and where states can waive limits on how long certain residents can receive benefits. The changes will move more “able-bodied” adults into the workplace, said US Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
“States are seeking waivers for wide swaths of their population[s], and millions of people who could work are continuing to receive SNAP benefits,” he told reporters.
The US generally limits the amount of time that adults can receive food stamps when they are aged 18-49 and who do not have dependents or disability benefits. The limitations are usually three months within a 36-month period unless the adults meet certain work requirements.
States can apply for waivers to this time limit due to tough economic conditions. However, counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5 percent have been included in waived areas, according to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency that runs SNAP.
The USDA is stiffening guidelines defining where recipients can reside to be eligible for waivers and standards for demonstrating whether an area has enough jobs to justify a waiver.
The US unemployment rate was 3.6 percent in October.
“We need everyone who can work to work,” Perdue said.
But critics say the moves will hurt poor Americans.
“This is an unacceptable escalation of the administration’s war on working families, and it comes during a time when too many are forced to stretch already-thin budgets to make ends meet,” said US Congressional Representative Marcia Fudge, an Ohio State Democrat.
The administration has sought to tighten requirements for food stamps without congressional approval after the US Congress blocked a Trump-backed effort to pass new restrictions through the Farm Bill last year.
The latest rule will take effect next year and save the government $5.5bn over five years by removing about 688,000 people from the food stamps rolls, said Brandon Lipps, a USDA deputy undersecretary.
“For those impacted, it will mean less nutritious meals or meals that are skipped altogether,” said Cassie Ramos, policy associate for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.