Under federal law, able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) can receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for only 3 months in a 36-month period unless they meet specific work requirements. States can request waivers for areas with unemployment rates above 10% or that are deemed to lack sufficient jobs. Congress allows these waivers because economic conditions may hinder SNAP recipients’ ability to secure enough work hours to meet work requirements.

On December 5, 2019, the USDA Food and Nutrition Service issued a final rule, effective April 1, 2020, further restricting when it will grant these waivers. The new rule will substantially curtail these waivers. Significantly, the rule imposes a new and restrictive definition for areas that may qualify for waivers; narrows what evidence can be used to show that an area has an unemployment rate above 10% or lacks sufficient jobs; and, starting October 1, 2020, limits the carryover of unused discretionary exemptions.

In the text of the final rule, the agency states it is restricting these waivers because “reducing the number of waivers and discretionary exemptions would improve economic outcomes, promote self-sufficiency, and encourage greater engagement in meaningful work activities among ABAWDs.” However, as the USDA noted, the majority of public comments on the proposed rule challenged this rationale.

For example, USDA noted the following objections by commenters:

  • studies show that “work rates for ABAWDs are generally similar in areas with and without waivers, supporting the notion that the proposed rule would not increase work”
  • there are “numerous studies on TANF [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] and Medicaid to support the assertion that work requirements harm program recipients while producing few lasting gains in employment”
  • research shows that “a majority of individuals exposed to these requirements were already attached to the labor force and were working part of the year, but many would be unable to consistently meet the ABAWD work requirement due to volatility in the low-wage labor market”
  • “the proposed rule did nothing to expand [Employment and Training] programs for ABAWDs or decrease unemployment barriers for this population”

The effects of the rule are significant. By the agency’s own estimates, 77% of counties will lose their current waivers of the time limit. This means that 688,000 individuals will no longer be exempt and will likely be unable to meet the work requirement. As a result, SNAP benefit payments will be reduced by an estimated $1.1 billion per year. More troubling, the agency’s own Civil Rights Impact Analysis of the rule found that the changes “have the potential for impacting certain protected groups due to factors affecting rates of employment of members of these groups.” The agency vaguely suggests that this impact may be lessened by “implementation of mitigation strategies and monitoring.”

The bottom line: This rule is a substantial change to SNAP; it is projected to deny nearly 700,000 people SNAP benefits, leaving them without important food support; and it has the potential to cause significant adverse impacts for protected groups.

Read the amended text of 7 C.F.R. § 273.24 included in the final rule.

UPDATE: On Friday, March 13, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia issued a preliminary injunction preventing April 1 implementation of the rule's changes to waiver requirements pending judicial review. This injunction does not apply to the changes to discretionary exemptions.

View the injunction: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-03/Order-Granting-Motion-PI-SNAP-ABAWD-Rule.pdf