Updated at 12:59 p.m. ET
The Trump administration is tightening work requirements for some food stamp recipients, a change that is expected to eliminate Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits for 688,000 adults.
The new rule makes it more difficult for states to waive a requirement that able-bodied adults without children work at least 20 hours a week or else lose their benefits. The administration says the change is intended to encourage those receiving SNAP to get jobs, but anti-hunger advocates worry it will hurt low-income individuals who can't find steady work.
"We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not allowing it to become an infinitely giving hand," U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a press release. "Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work, to work."
The new rule impacts able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents. There were nearly 4 million such adults receiving food stamps in 2016, about three-quarters of whom did not work, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some estimates say the changes could save nearly $5 billion over five years.
SNAP statutes already limit adults to three months of benefits in a three-year period unless they meet the 20 hours per week requirement, but many states currently waive that requirement in high unemployment areas. This change would make those waivers harder to get.
"The rule restores the system to what Congress intended: assistance through difficult times, not a way of life," Perdue said. As NPR reported last year, though, Congress passed the farm bill without changes like these to SNAP.
Provisions of the new rule are slated to take effect on April 1, 2020.
But opposition to the change is strong, and legal challenges are possible. States say it will impose a huge administrative burden on social service agencies, and congressional Democrats have already threatened to sue if the change goes into effect.
Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, criticized the rule.
"There's a reason Republicans and Democrats overwhelmingly rejected this callous proposal in the Farm Bill and instead focused on bipartisan job training opportunities that actually help families find good paying jobs," she said in a statement.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member K. Michael Conaway issued a statement praising the decision to move forward with the rule while acknowledging that many SNAP recipients are unable to work because they are either disabled or serving as primary caregivers for relatives.
"But for those whose situations allow it, employment is a chance to regain dignity and purpose, and contribute to our economy and society," he said.
James D. Weill, president of the nonprofit Food Research & Action Center, said in a statement that the change would take food off the tables of thousands of Americans, many of whom live in areas with few available jobs.
"The final rule would cause serious harm to individuals, communities, and the nation while doing nothing to improve the health and employment of those impacted by the rule," Weill said. "In addition, the rule would harm the economy, grocery retailers, agricultural producers, and communities by reducing the amount of SNAP dollars available to spur local economic activity."
Craig Gundersen, a professor of agriculture and consumer economics at the University of Illinois, told NPR in April that there is no evidence that receiving food stamps discourages work.
"The idea that people are ripping off the system of something, that's just not true," he said.
A public comment period drew more than 100,000 responses before it closed in April.
Rachel Treisman is an intern on NPR's National Desk.
A previous version of this story misspelled Craig Gundersen's last name as Gunderson.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Hundreds of thousands of people are likely to lose their food stamps, technically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP. That is because the Trump administration announced today that it is tightening work requirements for the food aid program. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: The administration says it wants to encourage those who get SNAP benefits to work, especially now that the economy is doing so well. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says the aid was never intended to be permanent but to help people through difficult times.
SONNY PERDUE: We're taking action to reform our SNAP program in order to restore the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population and be respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program.
FESSLER: And the change, which is set to go into effect in April, would save an estimated $5 billion over the next five years. But it also means that nearly 700,000 able-bodied, childless adults will lose their benefits, people like Troy Williams of Baltimore, who told NPR earlier this year that he wouldn't be able to meet the 20-hour-a-week work requirement because he has a seasonal job doing janitorial work at the city's baseball and football stadiums.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TROY WILLIAMS: And it's hard finding a full-time job. So I mean, I would be hurting. I would be hurting.
FESSLER: He already relies on a local food pantry to supplement his $192-a-month SNAP benefit. Anti-hunger advocates say there are many more SNAP recipients out there like Williams, those who have some work but not enough or who have been unable to find jobs, even if they've been looking. Opponents of the rules say it's not only cruel but counterproductive.
JESSICA BARTHOLOW: We think that people will be hungrier, and they will be less able to secure permanent and steady work not more able.
FESSLER: Jessica Bartholow is with the Western Center on Law & Poverty in California, one of thousands of groups that came out against the new rule after it was proposed last spring. She says her center represents many people, including those who are homeless or have a mental disability, who could have a hard time proving that they meet the new requirements.
BARTHOLOW: Even if they are working 20 hours a week, many people will struggle to document that. A lot of people who are low-income and who turn to the SNAP program to prevent hunger work in jobs that don't regularly provide a pay stub.
FESSLER: In fact, the additional paperwork and reporting requirements have drawn objections from states, which fear that they'll end up bearing the costs. Earlier this year, 21 state attorneys general came out against the new rule. They said it undermined the purpose of the food aid program, which is to alleviate hunger and malnutrition. But the Trump administration notes that the change only applies to able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 and that individuals can also meet the requirements by volunteering or getting job training. Opponents say such opportunities are limited and some, like the Western Center, are already considering legal action to prevent the new rule from going into effect.
Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.