by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Our food-stamp program has some bizarre loopholes in it, and the Trump administration is trying to close them. A new rule finalized [Wednesday] attacks one in particular.
In theory, the program has a strict time limit for “ABAWDs,” or able-bodied adults without dependents: If they don’t meet their work requirement or receive a case-by-case exemption from their state, they may receive food stamps for at most three months in any 36-month period. But in practice, the executive branch has broad discretion to waive the limit for large geographic areas with weak labor markets — and previous administrations used that discretion promiscuously. As of 2017, about a third of the U.S. population lived in waived areas.
Under the old rule, any place with an unemployment rate one-fifth above the national average was eligible for a waiver. (Places could — and still can — also establish eligibility by having an absolute rate over 10 percent.) This meant that when unemployment was low throughout the country, areas with good labor markets could still receive waivers, simply because unemployment wasn’t quite as low there as it was elsewhere.
The old rule also allowed states to effectively gerrymander their waiver requests, combining high- and low-unemployment counties to maximize the number of people exempted. All told, states such as Illinois and California were able to obtain waivers for all but a few of their counties.
In short, the system was unfair and arbitrary, imposing time limits on some recipients but not others based on where they happened to live, failing to target the waivers toward truly needy areas, and allowing states to abuse the rules to draw in more federally funded benefits.