Trump Administration Moves to Restrict Food Stamp Access the Farm Bill Protected

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced on Thursday that it would seek to put in place more stringent work requirements for adults who rely on food stamps, even as the president signed a sweeping farm bill in which lawmakers had rejected stricter rules.

By moving to limit the ability of states to issue waivers to people who say they cannot make ends meet under the requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the Agriculture Department found another route to create restrictions, bypassing Congress and drawing immediate criticism that the proposed rule was sure to harm Americans below the poverty line.

The administration, which along with conservatives had fought to include stricter work requirements in the farm bill, continued to argue that food stamps were never meant to be a way of life and that able-bodied adults should be able to find jobs in a healthy economy.

“Long-term reliance on government assistance has never been part of the American dream,” Sonny Perdue, the agriculture secretary, said in a statement. “Moving people to work is common-sense policy, particularly at a time when the unemployment rate is at a generational low.”

The $867 billion farm bill, a huge piece of legislation intended to provide relief for farmers and the poor, encountered a number of obstacles this year as it faced scrutiny from conservative lawmakers who pushed for an overhaul in how the food program’s participants would be evaluated.

In the end, Republican and Democratic negotiators decided to drop two proposals introduced by conservatives and publicly championed by President Trump: one that would have imposed further work requirements on adults using SNAP, and another that would have closed a loophole allowing states to waive the requirements in areas with high unemployment rates.

The proposed rule drew ire from Democrats, who accused the Trump administration of steamrollering a rare bipartisan compromise and ignoring Congress’s mandate to leave the program and its 40 million recipients untouched.

“After a very rough back and forth on that particular issue, basically we left the program alone without restricting people from being able to get it,” said Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, Democrat of Arizona, one of the negotiators on the bill’s bicameral committee. “Now you have Secretary Perdue doing essentially what was, in a bipartisan way, agreed not to do. He needs to know what the intent of Congress is and follow it.”

Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, the top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, accused Mr. Perdue in a bluntly worded statement of “blatantly” ignoring the bipartisan farm bill and disregarding “over 20 years of history giving states flexibility to request waivers based on local job conditions.”

Liberal groups joined in the criticism. In a statement, Robert Greenstein, the president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning Washington think tank, said the administration’s decision threatened to cut off basic food aid to hundreds of thousands of people, many of them aged 18 to 49, who could use the help.

“The administration may portray its proposal as a reasonable ‘work requirement,’” Mr. Greenstein said. “But as noted, most states don’t offer these people any job, training opportunity or slot in a work program, and people who are ‘playing by the rules’ and looking hard for a job are cut off nonetheless.”

By contrast, House Republicans, who had included tougher work requirements in their version of the farm bill, cheered the decision, and argued that the final, bipartisan version left the door open for Mr. Perdue to intervene.

Representative Patrick T. McHenry of North Carolina, the Republicans’ chief deputy whip, denied that the move amounted to a partisan circumvention of Congress.

“I think a fresh view from the Department of Agriculture at that process and at that data is a healthy and good thing,” he said. “Was it a partisan move when the Obama administration expanded the waivers?”

Representative K. Michael Conaway, Republican of Texas and the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, praised the department’s move. Mr. Conaway said that the proposal demonstrated “the importance of state accountability and recipient success.”

But even Mr. Conaway had recently suggested that Mr. Perdue had no place to sidestep Congress and “wave a magic wand.”

“So, it’s our job to fix it,” Mr. Conaway said in an interview with a farming publication while negotiations were underway in September, “and then once we get the law fixed, it’s the secretary’s responsibility to implement the new law, not fix the existing broken system that’s allowing waivers to be abused.”

A healthier economy helped reduce SNAP usage by about three million people from November 2016 to March 2018, according to the most recent data from the Agriculture Department. In campaign rallies, Mr. Trump has used exaggerated terms to describe the reduction, which began before he took office.

At the same time, his administration has targeted the program’s benefits: In February, seeking to cut $21 billion from the federal deficit over the next decade, the administration proposed a system that would force many participants to substitute half of their benefits for a “Harvest Box” that contained a selected menu of canned goods, “shelf stable” milk and pasta. That proposal met immediate backlash.

In September, individuals with SNAP benefits received an average benefit of $123 a month, compared with $245 for families, according to the most recently available government data. With the new rules, the Agriculture Department is focusing on able-bodied adults without dependents, who can access SNAP for only three months in a three-year period unless they are working at least 80 hours a month. The proposal would call for a more stringent review of the process those participants undergo to obtain a waiver to extend that time limit, often because of bad economic conditions or similar hardships.

By the time the farm bill passed without the conservative-championed measures in place, Mr. Perdue had already signaled that he would use his regulatory power to introduce restrictions.

“I strongly advise all states” using such waivers, Mr. Perdue wrote in a draft letter to governors last month, “to review your policy choices concerning when and where to request these waivers.”

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