Topline: The U.S. Department of Agriculture said Wednesday that a rule tightening work requirements for food stamp recipients would result in 688,000 people losing access to the program.

  • Current law limits adults to three months of food stamps within a three-year period unless they work or are in a work training program for at least 20 hours per week. But states have often gotten waivers from the time-limit rule in areas lacking enough jobs.
  • The new guidelines would make it harder for states to get those exemptions by raising the minimum unemployment rate in waived counties to 6%. Before, the USDA said, countries receiving waivers had unemployment rates as low as 2.5%.
  • A regulatory analysis of the measure found that it could strip 688,000 people of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.
  • The rule would apply only to able-bodied adults without dependents, so families, the elderly, pregnant women and disabled people are excluded from the rule change.
  • 36 million people in the U.S. receive some form of SNAP benefits, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on a call with reporters, which means that nearly 2% of all food stamp beneficiaries would lose access under the new rule.

Crucial quote: Purdue framed the move as a way encourage self-sufficiency when the unemployment rate is lower than it was a decade ago. “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,” Perdue said in a statement.

Chief critics: Democrats and anti-poverty groups called the policy change cruel and a showcase of “cartoonish villainy,” especially because it goes into effect right before the winter holidays.

“Today’s announcement showcases the Trump Administration’s complete and devastating disregard for the health and well-being of millions of Americans,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said in a statement. “Their cynical effort to perpetuate false perceptions of low-income Americans is out-of-touch and callous.”

The left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said in a statement that tightening the waiver requirements based on historical unemployment data stifles the ability of states to apply for waivers during a sudden economic downturn. Additionally, measuring the overall unemployment rate doesn’t accurately gauge how many jobs are available for low-wage workers, the organization said,

“A local area with an overall 5.8 percent unemployment rate can have an African American unemployment rate closer to 10 percent, as well as an unemployment rate around 10 percent for people of all races who are age 25 or over who lack a high school diploma or GED,” the statement reads.

Key background: The same work requirement rule was slipped into an early version of the Farm Bill as it made its way through Congress last year. But the final version of the law, which was signed by Trump, nixed it after opposition from Democrats and some Republicans. 

Further reading: Read the final rule here.