Under current U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) rules, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) can only receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for three months in a 36-month period, unless they work 80 hours per month. ABAWDs are 18-49 years old, have no physical or mental health challenges and don't have dependents younger than 18.
State SNAP agencies can request the USDA to temporarily waive the time limit of three months in areas that have an unemployment rate of over 10% or a “lack of sufficient jobs.” Outside of waived areas, state agencies can extend SNAP eligibility for ABAWDs subject to the time limit by using a limited number of percentage exemptions provided by the USDA. Each state SNAP agency is allotted a certain number of exemptions by the USDA equal to an estimated 12% of ABAWDs subject to the time limit of three months in their state. State SNAP agencies can use these exemptions to provide additional months of SNAP benefits to certain ABAWDs.
Summary of Changes
The USDA rule reduces the number of waived areas for ABAWDs including:
- Establishes a Floor for a “Lack of Sufficient Jobs”: Only areas with unemployment rates above the “natural rate of unemployment” or more than 5%, would be considered for waivers.
- Eliminates Statewide Waivers: The rule eliminates statewide approvals when sub-state data is available through BLS. Sub-state data refers to city, county, or group-of-county data.
- Limits Use of Alternative Data for Waiver Request Applications: USDA will approve waiver requests using alternative data—data not from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) unemployment data—only in exceptional circumstances such as reservations or U.S. territories.
- Limits Grouping Areas: Currently, states can group multiple counties, cities and towns together to apply for a time-limited waiver. The rule requires states to use Labor Market Areas by the Department of Labor. LMAs are economically integrated areas where individuals can reside and find employment within a reasonable distance.
- Shortens Duration of Waiver Approvals: Currently, SNAP waivers can be approved for longer than a year in certain circumstances. Under the rule a waiver’s duration would be limited to one year.
- Eliminates Unlimited Exemption Carryover: Each fiscal year, USDA adjusts the number of ABAWD percentage exemptions available to each state. Unlimited carryover from all preceding years are not allowed.
The rule goes into effect April 1, 2020. All waivers that were in effect in federal fiscal year 2019 will need to adhere to the new rule. Existing waivers that do not adhere to the new rule are terminated as of March 31, 2020.
Effects of Changes
The regulation would decrease the number of individuals currently receiving SNAP benefits by 688,000 according to FNS. States such as California, Florida, Texas, and New York have the largest ABAWD populations. As of 2019, USDA reports that Alaska, Guam, Louisiana, New Mexico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia have statewide exemptions from the time-limit; 30 states including California and New York have partial waivers. The administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service Brandon Lipps remarked the overall number of waived areas would decrease by 75%. The CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute predicts a net reduction of $7.9 billion over five years in spending on SNAP benefits.
Many states, particularly those with current ABAWD time-limit waivers that cover a large geographic area of the state, could see an increase in administrative costs associated with tracking the state's ABAWD population to ensure work requirements are being met.
Additionally, in states that have experienced a sudden loss of the ABAWD time-limit waiver, there has been an increased strain felt by food pantries and other social service provider agencies. Many individuals rapidly fall off SNAP when the time-limit waiver is lost and seek assistance elsewhere to meet their needs.
Opinions from Federal Officials
Sixty-five representatives signed a letter in support of the proposed rule, citing the nation’s strong economy and the growing number of individuals who are not working.
Forty-seven senators signed a letter against the proposed rule, highlighting the rule’s rejection of Congressional Intent evidenced in the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018 and the unique conditions and needs of each locality in combatting food insecurity.
The U.S. House of Representatives filed an amicus brief against the proposed rule in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in the case District of Columbia, et al. v. U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a nationwide injunction on March 13, temporarily halting the implementation of the rule.
The lawsuit, filed by a group of attorneys general in 20 states across the country, asserts that the rule change sidestepped Congress' intent for SNAP, violated the rule-making process, imposes significant administrative and cost burdens on states, and would harm local businesses and economies.
In its decision, the court cited the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic as an example of why states require the increased flexibilities the USDA's rule limits. This means current rules will remain in place until the court has more time to hear arguments and issues a final decision. Timing on a final decision TBD.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted March 18, 2020, waives work requirements for ABAWDs starting April 1, 2020, until the end of the month that the national coronavirus emergency is declared over.
This document was written by Chesterfield Polkey—Emerson Hunger Fellow, NCSL 2019; and revised by Sean Walsh—Emerson Hunger Fellow, NCSL 2020