Food insecurity rates in rural and mostly rural counties, 2017. Adapted from a report by the Urban Institute released October 22, 2019. (Daily Yonder)

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This story has been updated to include a response from the USDA Press Office.

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The USDA’s new rules requiring more SNAP participants to work or lose benefits will hit rural residents harder than the rest of the nation, according to a University of California Davis legal scholar.

Work requirements are disproportionally harmful in rural communities because of a dearth of public transportation, lack of access to child care where needed and very few available jobs,” said Lisa Pruitt, a legal scholar and Martin Luther King Jr. Professor of Law at the University of California-Davis. “My basic argument is that work requirements are a mismatch for rural communities.”

UPDATE: The work requirements do not apply to parents with children in the home, a USDA spokesperson said in an email statement to the Daily Yonder. “This reform is targeted specifically to adults that do not have child care responsibilities, and it is inappropriate to imply otherwise,” the statement said. The complete statement is included at the bottom of this article.

Earlier this week the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would cancel work-requirement waivers for hundreds of thousands of participants in the nation’s largest anti-hunger program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The rule change affects SNAP recipients between the ages of 18 and 49 who are childless and not disabled. Currently, these “able-bodied adults” are required to work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for SNAP benefits, but states have been able to get exceptions for recipients who live in areas with high unemployment rates.

Pruitt has authored numerous articles on rural issues, including analysis of policy changes to safety net and welfare programs. She recently co-wrote a chapter, “States’ Rights and State Wrongs: SNAP Work Requirements in Rural America” for the book Holes in the Safety Net.

Based on previous work she had conducted on welfare reform in 2007, “I started to revisit this work when work requirements once again came to the fore during the Trump administration,” Pruitt said. “To some extent, they had already returned in some places such as Maine under Governor Paul LePage. Maine is very rural. When this opportunity came up to write about state by state differences in the safety net, we dug into the situation in Maine since the work requirements there had been in place for a while.”

Pruitt said that though work requirements might be politically popular, “in practice they often fail to achieve their goals of promoting self-sufficiency and in fact worsen the plight of those already suffering the ill-effects of poverty and food insecurity.”

“Work requirements are ill-fitted for rural America for these various structural challenges based on taking a look at the experience and data from Maine,” Pruitt said.

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue announced the changes, stating that the rules are part of the Trump administration’s efforts to move more adults “towards self-sufficiency and into employment.”

“Americans are generous people who believe it is their responsibility to help their fellow citizens when they encounter a difficult stretch,” Perdue said in a press release. “Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream. We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”

USDA estimates that 688,000 people will lose access to SNAP because of the changes, reducing SNAP spending by $5.5 billion over the next five years.

The change “lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them,” Perdue said.

Anti-hunger groups were critical of the work requirement changes.

“This action flies in the face of congressional intent, coming almost a year after Congress passed the Farm Bill that left the current area waiver provisions in place,” said James D. Weill, president of Food Research & Action Center (FRAC) in a statement. “If the rule is implemented, the nation would see higher rates of hunger and poverty.”

The changes 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. 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,” Weill said.

In March, Mathematica Policy Research and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation issued a report about the 1.2 million participants living in waiver areas who do not have a disability, do not live with children, and are not working the required average of 20 hours per week. Their research found that:

  • A greater share of these SNAP participants lived in poverty (97 percent) compared to other SNAP participants (80 percent); 88 percent also had household incomes at or below 50 percent of the poverty level.
  • About 81 percent lived alone.
  • About one-third lived in SNAP households that reported income. Among those with reported income, the average monthly household income was $557, or 43 percent of the poverty level ($20,160 for a family of three in fiscal year 2017).
  • About 11 percent were working (but less than the required average of 20 hours per week), and another 5 percent lived with someone else who was working.

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Statement from the USDA Press Office: A December 6 story appearing on your site, “SNAP Work Requirements Will Hit Rural Areas Harder, Scholar Says,” makes note of Professor Lisa Pruitt’s view that work requirements for public benefit program participants are disproportionatelly harmful in rural communities in part because of lack of access to child care where needed, among other challenges.  However – and as the article notes – USDA’s recent rule change affects SNAP recipients between the ages of 18 and 49 who are not disabled and do not have children in the home. This reform is targeted specifically to adults that do not have child care responsibilities, and it is inappropriate to imply otherwise.

As Agriculture Secretary Perdue explained when the rule was announced, “Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream…This rule lays the groundwork for the expectation that able-bodied Americans re-enter the workforce where there are currently more job openings than people to fill them.”  We would appreciate you updating the story to make this distinction clear. Thank you for your consideration.

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This story has been updated to include information about the publication of Holes in the Safety Net, the book for which Lisa Pruitt wrote a chapter on SNAP work requirements in rural America.