New federal regulations set to take effect April 1, 2020, may make it significantly harder for many with disabilities to obtain food stamps.
The new rules, finalized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), center on the work requirements for recipients of the federal food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
Under current SNAP rules, people cannot receive SNAP benefits for more than three months over any 36-month period unless they are employed or participating in a training program at least 20 hours a week.
States, however, have the option of waiving these requirements in areas where the unemployment rate is above 10 percent, or where the area “does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for the individuals.” During the recent Great Recession, most states waived the work requirement and the SNAP program expanded significantly, from approximately 17 million recipients in 2000 to 36 million today.
The new regulations roll back the leeway of states to issue waivers. Specifically, states will only be able to grant waivers for areas where—over a two-year period—the unemployment rate has been 20 percent higher than the national average over the same period, with 6 percent as the minimum. Opponents of these changes argue that they will make it significantly harder for states to react to sudden changes in the economy.
Among other changes, the rules will also prohibit states from combining adjacent cities and towns when issuing waivers, forcing them to issue waivers to individual municipalities, and statewide waivers are banned. The USDA estimates that about 688,00 people will lose their SNAP benefits as a result.
In theory, the work requirements only apply to people age 18 through 49 without dependents and explicitly exempt people with disabilities. Disability advocates, however, have long criticized the USDA for relying on a narrow definition of disability. The USDA’s definition essentially only includes people who receive various federal and state disability benefits, leaving out millions of people with disabilities but still need food assistance. In addition, people with disabilities who should be exempt from the work rules are sometimes misclassified.
“It may seem simple to assert that ‘people with disabilities will be exempt,’ but converting such a statement into an effective policy process is complicated, expensive, and fundamentally flawed,” the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities wrote in public comments to the USDA last year. “People with disabilities generally want to work but may need additional supports and services to obtain and keep jobs, in addition to facing discrimination and misconceptions about their ability to work.
“The proposal does not mandate that states help people prove they are exempt, even if they have difficulty obtaining the necessary records or verification from a doctor. In addition, the proposal does not require states to ensure that people with disabilities have access to the services they might need to work.”
The new rules do not include any analysis of their potential impacts on people with disabilities.