By Jessica Bartholow, Policy Advocate, Western Center on Law & Poverty
In the Trump Administration’s efforts to scale back the federal safety net, it has proposed new work requirement rules for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) in need of SNAP food assistance – an estimated three million Americans.
For low-income individuals, both those who work and those who don’t or can’t, SNAP offers an essential support for preventing hunger. People looking for work need access to food, because unsurprisingly, hunger undermines employment goals.
At Western Center on Law & Poverty, we advocate for the health and dignity of people in poverty, and we see the proposed ABAWD rule as a hardhearted and misguided manipulation of welfare reform. In an economy as strong as the President claims, allowing people to go hungry is immoral and short-sighted.
Congress created a time limit in the Food Stamp Program, now known as SNAP, in 1996 for unemployed, underemployed, and job-seeking childless adults — deemed ABAWDs. Unless exempt due to disability or pregnancy, ABAWDs are limited to receiving food benefits for three months out of any 36-month period unless they satisfy a 20 hours-per-week work requirement.
In the time since 1996, the USDA approved California’s requests to waive ABAWD time-limits, but that changed last year. The statewide waiver of the ABAWD time limit expired on August 31, 2018, with all counties except San Francisco, Santa Clara and San Mateo receiving area waivers until August 31, 2019. The intent of the original 1996 regulations, and the reason California received waivers in the two decades since, is to protect people from hunger.
Many Californians struggle with unemployment, underemployment, and low-wages, and as a result, are forced to rely on public safety net programs. ABAWDs may be able to find low-paying service jobs, but those jobs are increasingly part-time and lack fair scheduling, making it difficult to guarantee 20 hours a week on a regular basis. That kind of involuntary part-time work has doubled between 2007 and 2012 — 43 percent of part-time workers say they wish they were given more hours.
The proposed ABAWD rule also ignores the fact that numerous ABAWDS are classified as such by a slim margin. Many struggle to hold work because of circumstances beyond their control – undiagnosed mental and physical health barriers, inaccessible job markets, and unstable living conditions.
While the time limit includes protections for people with disabilities, proving that one is unfit for work is difficult. States are not obligated to help individuals find providers to diagnose or treat impairments, which means those with significant illnesses risk being unable to comply with verification rules.
Western Center joined the California Secretaries of Agriculture and Health and Human Services in calling for the complete repeal of the ABAWD rule. If the rule isn’t repealed, lawmakers should, at minimum, protect long-established waivers that prevent hunger for people in communities impacted by high unemployment and underemployment.
California’s temporary ability to exempt individuals from the ABAWD rule is important, but it’s insufficient. We cannot afford to weaken protections from the ABAWD time limit, especially since there is no evidence that it will result in people working more. Additionally, the proposed rule directly undermines legislative intent; negotiations for the 2018 Farm Bill included a consideration for work requirements, but those requirements were left out.
The comment period for the proposed rule came to a close this week — it was extended after Western Center brought attention to errors in the submission system. We submitted comments encouraging the USDA to abandon the proposed rule change for the ABAWD time limit, but ultimately, we are working for the elimination of the time limit altogether to ensure that every American who wants to work can, and that no one goes hungry due to lack of a job.
Jessica Bartholow is a Policy Advocate at Western Center. She has nearly two decades of experience in anti-poverty organizing, advocacy and program development at the local, state and national level. Jessica has co-authored several advocate and program guides and led a coalition to support the passage of several pieces of signed legislation that improve public benefits delivery, consumer protections and financial empowerment for low-income Americans.