Our food-stamp program has some bizarre loopholes in it, and the Trump administration is trying to close them. A new rule finalized today attacks one in particular.
In theory, the program has a strict time limit for “ABAWDs,” or able-bodied adults without dependents: If they don’t meet their work requirement or receive a case-by-case exemption from their state, they may receive food stamps for at most three months in any 36-month period. But in practice, the executive branch has broad discretion to waive the limit for large geographic areas with weak labor markets — and previous administrations used that discretion promiscuously. As of 2017, about a third of the U.S. population lived in waived areas.
Under the old rule, any place with an unemployment rate one-fifth above the national average was eligible for a waiver. (Places could — and still can — also establish eligibility by having an absolute rate over 10 percent.) This meant that when unemployment was low throughout the country, areas with good labor markets could still receive waivers, simply because unemployment wasn’t quite as low there as it was elsewhere.
The old rule also allowed states to effectively gerrymander their waiver requests, combining high- and low-unemployment counties to maximize the number of people exempted. All told, states such as Illinois and California were able to obtain waivers for all but a few of their counties.
In short, the system was unfair and arbitrary, imposing time limits on some recipients but not others based on where they happened to live, failing to target the waivers toward truly needy areas, and allowing states to abuse the rules to draw in more federally funded benefits.
Under the new rule, effective in April of next year, these waivers won’t be granted to areas with unemployment below 6 percent. And states will be far more limited in the geographical configurations they can request waivers for. These are entirely reasonable policies, and well within the range of discretion the statute grants to the executive branch.
Many on the left complain about the rule simply because it will reduce the number of people on food stamps — by about 700,000, roughly 2 percent of total food-stamp enrollment, by the administration’s own estimate. But increasing benefit receipt is not an end in itself, especially when it comes at the expense of an incentive for childless, able-bodied adults to find work; and given the massive growth the program has seen these past two decades, there is clearly room for cuts. (Despite the recovery, total enrollment is about double what it was in 2000.) Perhaps more to the point, whatever one’s ideal level of food-stamp enrollment, there is no good reason to gut work requirements for entire areas with low unemployment while enforcing those requirements elsewhere — or to let states play games with their maps to boost eligibility.
The economy is in a good place, making now a good time to get those on welfare into the labor market by enforcing work requirements and time limits. The 1996 welfare reform proved the effectiveness of this approach. And if Congress disagrees, it’s welcome to write some new rules into the law rather than leaving these decisions to the executive branch.