A new rule requiring more able-bodied food assistance recipients to work could affect eligibility for more than 75,407 Washington residents.
“Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a news release. “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”
Able-bodied adults without dependents will need to work 80 hours monthly or 20 hours weekly to maintain eligibility for the Supplement Nutritional Assistance Program, called Basic Food in Washington.
The rule sets a universal unemployment rate floor of 6 percent for counties to be able to waive work requirements, which negatively impacts 26 Washington counties, including Clark County, said Norah West, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services.
The exact impact at the local level is still being determined. As of last month, Clark County had 5,614 able-bodied adults without dependents receiving food stamps; statewide, there were 87,817 recipients.
Those impacted by the rule receive an average of $210.40 monthly in food benefits. More than 42 percent experience homelessness and nearly 60 percent have behavioral or physical health conditions, including substance-use disorder, West said.
“These barriers make effectively seeking and obtaining employment especially difficult,” she said in an email.
Roughly 500,000 households or 990,000 people statewide, including children, receive food benefits.
Shavana Howard, Basic Food employment and training administrator, said the rule change is “pretty significant” because it requires more adults to participate in work or work-like activities, such as volunteering.
She said food assistance clients don’t always disclose information, such as having a mental health issue, that could exempt them from the work requirement. One future challenge is having people make those disclosures.
The agency will also need to provide additional work opportunities so people maintain eligibility. The Department of Social and Health Services currently collaborates with WorkSource and local organizations that provide employment and work training, but that will need to be bolstered. Howard said the agency doesn’t have employment partners in every county. There may also be room to update policy as to what constitutes a work activity, she said.
The state will eventually need to hire additional staff to verify employment and provide employment opportunities. Those costs have not yet been tallied.
In the meantime, the Department of Social and Health Services has been preparing for the rule’s rollout.
“Washington has always been a very innovative state when it comes to SNAP,” Howard said. “I think we’re in a good place to try to meet federal requirements.”
The state is awaiting further analysis on how each county will be impacted. Clark County represents about 9 percent of total Basic Food participants.
“We will continue to request waivers for tribes who have high unemployment rates separate from the counties,” Howard added.
People who lose food assistance will likely have to turn to food pantries or try to requalify for benefits.
Following final approval of the rule, U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., on Wednesday tweeted: “This change will take food assistance away from Washingtonians struggling to find stable employment, and it does nothing to help them actually become permanently employed. … One-size-fits-all rules for #SNAP and employment practices actually end up fitting no one. This decision ignores the intent of Congress and will worsen hunger in this country — it should be withdrawn immediately.”
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., released a statement Wednesday: “It’s hard to see this as anything but the President being cruel for cruelty’s sake. There is absolutely no reason to deny struggling individuals the food assistance they need. President Trump may not understand how much damage steps like this cause — but I do, and I’m not going to stop fighting to get this heartless rule and others like it reversed.”
Their concerns echoed those of Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, who in March sent a letter to Perdue detailing his “grave concerns” with the rule. “This misguided and harmful policy would severely restrict access to food assistance for those who need it most, exacerbating hunger and making it even more difficult for people in poverty to find work,” he wrote, concluding: “The current rules, which have been in place for 20 years, are reasonable, transparent, manageable and effective. We see no rational justification for this administration’s sweeping changes that would undermine our state’s success in reducing hunger and moving people to employment.”