Trump rule to end food stamp access for some 700,000 nationwide; in FL, ‘a lot of damage has already been done’

Ricky Swift waits to apply for food stamps at the Cooperative Feeding Program in Fort Lauderdale. New federal regulations would limit the state's ability to expand eligibility. Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration this week finalized a regulation that’s expected to knock about 700,000 people off food stamp benefits nationwide.

It’s one of three controversial policies the administration is pursuing that aim to limit eligibility for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The administration has portrayed the effort as a push to boost self-sufficiency, but critics have labeled it a cruel attack on an important anti-hunger program.

“Instead of combating food insecurity for millions, connecting workers to good-paying jobs or addressing income inequality, the administration is inflicting their draconian rule on millions of Americans across the nation who face the highest barriers to employment and economic stability,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a written statement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s final rule would tighten food stamp eligibility requirements by limiting states’ ability to grant waivers that extend benefits in areas with high unemployment. The administration estimates that about 688,000 people nationwide will lose access to nutrition benefits under the new regulation.

Combined with two other pending regulations to restrict SNAP access, the administration’s policies could lead to 3.7 million fewer people receiving food stamp benefits nationwide, according to an analysis by the Urban Institute.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue called the regulation finalized this week an effort to “move more able-bodied” food stamp recipients “towards self-sufficiency” and into employment. “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” Perdue said in a written statement.

Florida lawmakers and other critics have assailed the proposal.

The new requirements would “threaten the food security” of some of “the most vulnerable people in America,” Rep. Donna Shalala, a Democrat representing part of Miami-Dade Count, wrote on Twitter. “This is a cruelty, plain and simple. No one in America should ever go hungry.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, another Democrat whose district includes portions of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, wrote that the administration “slithered and slunk around Congress to imperil food security for nearly a million of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens. To do it at the height of the holidays is Grinchy indeed.”

Federal law limits the time frame for the receipt of SNAP benefits by “able-bodied” adults between the ages of 18 and 49 who don’t have dependents or a disability. They can receive benefits for three months in a 36-month period unless they meet certain work requirements, according to USDA.

States are allowed to waive those limits in areas where there’s high unemployment or sufficient jobs aren’t available, but the Trump administration said that states have “taken advantage of” weaknesses in the existing regulations to request waivers in areas where it’s “questionable” whether there’s indeed a lack of sufficient employment.

It appears that Floridians wouldn’t immediately be affected by the rule finalized this week because it’s one of 18 states that didn’t have any waivers to the work restrictions, according to the Urban Institute’s analysis.

It’s up to the states whether they want to request these waivers, said Laura Wheaton, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “Virtually all the states were waived during the great recession,” she said, but after the economy improved many states lost eligibility for state-wide waivers.

In 2015, the Florida Legislature passed a bill prohibiting the Department of Children and Families from seeking SNAP waivers in areas that might qualify without getting permission from the Legislature.

“A lot of damage has already been done in that state,” said Alexandra Cawthorne Gaines, vice president of the Poverty to Prosperity Program at the Center for American Progress.

Although the new Trump administration rule wouldn’t have an immediate effect on the state’s caseload, Wheaton said, “it would affect Florida’s options in the future for requesting waivers.”

Cindy Huddleston, a policy analyst and attorney at the Florida Policy Institute, told the administration in April that finalizing the rule would mean “vulnerable Floridians who are unable to find jobs despite their best efforts will be cut from SNAP and lose their only means to buy groceries.” She added, “This is a lose-lose proposition for not only struggling families, but also for charities, local communities, and the state as a whole, who will be tasked with attempting to take up the slack.”

Two other food stamp rules proposed by the Trump administration could end SNAP eligibility for about 354,000 Floridians, according to the Urban Institute’s report.