Proposed Rule on Food Assistance Would Limit State Flexibility

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute is submitting objections this week to a proposed federal rule change that threatens to block access to food assistance for Georgians living in poverty.

The comments to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) urge the rejection of a proposed rule that governs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s (SNAP) 3-month time-limit on childless adults and waivers for able-bodied adults without dependents. Federal law imposes a 3-month time-limit on food assistance for most childless adults who don’t work at least 20 hours a week. While most of the time-limit rule is set in federal law, states can obtain flexibility through waivers in areas of high unemployment to protect food assistance benefits.

The flexibility helps mitigate the time-limit rule and its harsh impact. Georgia made regular use of the waiver and flexibility in response to the recession that began in 2007. As of Jan. 1, 2018, 63 Georgia counties carry a waiver to exempt able-bodied adults without dependents from the time-limit rule. These waivers serve as an important tool to protect food assistance benefits during difficult economic times. Through a recent call for public comments on a potential rule change to the program, the USDA is signaling that it might eliminate the waiver as an option for states.

This rule change would result in a one-size-fits-all approach that will hamstring the ability of states to make decisions on how to most effectively administer the SNAP program and provide aid to residents who fall on hard times. The change would harm vulnerable people by denying them food benefits at a time when they most need it. Moreover, there is little evidence to assert that the elimination of the waiver will deliver increased employment and earnings.

Childless adults often turn to SNAP, commonly known as food stamps, for assistance when they are no longer able to make ends meets. This happens when jobs are lost, hours are cut or wages hover at the federal minimum. If this proposed rule took effect, people who work fewer than 20 hours a week will be subject to a ticking clock that jeopardizes the future of their food assistance benefits. The group hurt by this rule is extremely poor and often not eligible for other help while unemployed.

SNAP benefits play a critical role in alleviating hunger and food insecurity for nearly 1.7 million Georgians. In addition, SNAP benefits provide a substantial boost to Georgia’s economy, delivering nearly $2.54 billion annually in economic impact. The SNAP benefits program provides just $5 per day to thousands of Georgians living in poverty. The waiver is an important tool Georgia’s used to maintain flexibility, while protecting the continuity of food assistance benefits for people who fall on hard times. The USDA needs to abandon this misplaced proposal that makes the existing three-month time limit even harsher.

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