To: Food and Nutrition Service, USDA
From: Joel Berg, CEO, Hunger Free America (HFA)
Comments Re: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Requirements and Services for Able-Bodied Adults without Dependents; Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking
I am writing on behalf of Hunger Free America, a national nonprofit direct service and advocacy 501c3 nonprofit organization dedicated to ending domestic hunger.
In 2016, according to USDA, 41 million Americans, (a population larger than the combined populations of Texas and New England), suffered from food insecurity, unable to always afford a sufficient supply of food. Hunger Free America’s analysis of USDA data has found that 15 million American adults in 2016 were working for income but still lived in households that were food insecure. While food U.S. food insecurity overall – as well as food insecurity among working people – would be both be far higher if SNAP did not exist, we believe that the single most important goal for improving SNAP should be to expand and strengthen it so that it helps virtually eliminate food insecurity and hunger in America.
It is vital to note that the SNAP program is already incredibly effective in enabling work outside the home. According to Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, 90 percent of SNAP households with children had at least one parent working for income the year before and the year after getting SNAP and nearly three-quarters of adults who participate in SNAP in a typical month work either that month or within a year of that month of participation.
As is the case with unemployment insurance, people pay for SNAP with their tax dollars when they are working, and, if they are temporarily unemployed, they then receive back, in the form of benefits, a bit of what they have previously paid into the system.
Moreover, the vast majority of Americans who rely on SNAP are children, older Americans, people with disabilities, and working people. Only about 7 percent of SNAP recipients are classified as Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDS) who are not currently working. Many people who are in this category are veterans, some of whom have undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorders.
So, while we support efforts to better aid this small portion of the SNAP caseload, we hope that such activities do not distract the federal government from the need to focus on the far broader efforts necessary to end hunger in America.
The best way for the executive and legislative branches to slash U.S. food insecurity and increase paid employment is to create more jobs and ensure that they pay a living wage. But, for the foreseeable future in the U.S.. there will not be enough living wage jobs. Additionally, increased wages alone will not end hunger for most children, older Americans, people with disabilities, or people looking for work. Moreover, we believe no American of any age or status should go hungry. For all those reasons, the executive and legislative branches should both expand SNAP eligibility and increase benefit allotments for SNAP by adopting the moderate cost food plan.
Some people judge the success of anti-poverty programs solely on whether the use of those programs goes down over time. Such a limited metric makes little sense, and is tantamount to judging the success of a hospital solely by how many people leave the hospital, without differentiating between how many people leave the hospital cured, equally ill, or dead. A reduction in the SNAP caseload should only be considered a success if it corresponds to a reduction in food insecurity and hunger in America. That principle should apply to a reduction in the ABAWD caseload as well, which should only be judged successful if hunger decreases among the ABAWD population.
Given that broader context, I will now address USDA specific questions regarding ABAWDs:
USDA question 1: The Department is reviewing how it could take action on limiting ABAWD waivers as proposed in the President's budget proposals. In light of the Department's interest in helping SNAP participants find and maintain meaningful employment, how could the process for requesting to waive the time limit, the information needed to support waiver approval, and the waiver eligibility parameters be changed in order to provide appropriate relief for areas of high unemployment and a clearly demonstrated lack of jobs?
Hunger Free America answer 1: Limiting ABAWD waivers would increase hunger and fail to increase employment. It would be the wrong solution to the wrong problem. Such a change would be based on the false assumption that low-income Americans don’t want to work, so they need to be forced to do so. Yet the vast majority of low-income adults – including SNAP participants – are regular workers. Most proposals to limit ABAWD waivers do not include an extra penny for job creation, job training, or job creation; trying to place more people in employment without spending more money on employment would be as ineffective as trying to solve drought without more water. Eliminating waivers won’t create jobs— doing so would mostly increase bureaucracy and paperwork by forcing SNAP participants to take time out of their jobs or their job searches to report to a SNAP agency that they are working or looking for work, and then force states and counties to record and report those activities. Furthermore, under the Trump Administration, USDA has repeatedly said it wants to increase the flexibility that states have to administer SNAP; it is wholly inconsistent to then reduce flexibility that states now have to aid SNAP participants. The executive and legislative branches should work together to eliminate special ABAWD requirements entirely, and use the administrative funds saved to support concrete job creation activities.
USDA questions 1a, 1b, 1c, 1d (a) how could the definition of “lack of sufficient jobs” be revised to better support these goals? (b) States currently have discretion to define the area they are requesting to waive. Should States maintain this flexibility? Should an “economic area” be limited in geographic scope, such as to a single county, metropolitan area, or labor market area? (c) Should FNS accept data from additional sources of information that are currently not considered? (d) How recent should the data and information used in support of a waiver be in relation to the waiver implementation date?
HFA Answers 1a,1b,1c, 1d: The definition for “lack of sufficient jobs” should factor in the people who have given up looking for work because jobs are scarce in their area, which means the Labor Force Participation Rate is a better metric than the Unemployment Rate. Any locality with a Labor Force Participation Rate of 80 percent or below should be defined as an area with a “lack of sufficient jobs.” States should have flexibility to determine additional areas in which ABAWD requirements can be waived. Data should be as recent as possible.
USDA question 1e: Waivers are typically approved for 1 year, although under certain criteria 2 year waivers are available. Should FNS consider waivers of different time periods? If so, what time period and under what conditions?
HFA answer 1e: USDA should routinely allow two year waivers, which would reduce the paperwork and bureaucracy needed to file repeated waiver requests.
USDA Question 2: How can existing authority and resources be best used to support ABAWDs as they transition to meaningful work and self-sufficiency? How could the Department better support State efforts to assess individuals' work readiness and identify appropriate services to help participants obtain and retain employment?
HFA Answer 2: The USDA Food and Nutrition (FNS) should better coordinate its SNAP Employment and Training (SNAP E&T) funds with HHS TANF-funded job training programs and Department of Labor-funded Workforce Development Act job training services. All federally-funded job training and placement activities should be better coordinated with each other, and with private sector and public sector employers to ensure that people are being trained for jobs that are actually needed and unfilled. USDA FNS should also work with USDA Rural Development on a coordinated strategy for rural job creation and placement.
USDA question 2a: What challenges and barriers do States face in helping ABAWDs find and maintain employment? What do States need to build or strengthen their capacity, investment, and expertise in working with this population?
HFA answer 2a: Wages are too low and jobs are too scarce in all 50 states and all territories. The federal government should work with states to create living wages jobs. The federal government should raise the national minimum wage to $15 per hour, and future increases should be increased to the rate of inflation, and states should do the same for their own minimum wages. Both the federal government and all states will need to spend money to help the private sector create jobs, as well as increase public sector employment filling vital public needs. The AmeriCorps program, a highly effective national service and jobs program partnership between the federal government and states, should be dramatically expanded, and SNAP recipients should be encouraged to join AmeriCorps. The federal government and states should work together with the private sector to increase apprenticeships in a wide variety of professions. Given that the surest way to increase wages for workers and thus decrease the future need for SNAP for workers is to enable workers to receive post-secondary degrees, the executive and legislative branches should remove the restrictions that now make it extraordinarily difficult for full-time post-secondary school students to receive SNAP.
USDA questions 2b and c: (b) What is the appropriate role of States in assessing ABAWDs for barriers to employment, job skills, and career interests in order identify appropriate opportunities for fulfilling the work requirements? At what point in the process is this most useful? During the interview? After certification? (c) How can existing resources be leveraged by States to help ABAWDs find and maintain employment? Are there State/local/Federal or other stakeholders that can be leveraged to provide holistic services to ABAWDs?
HFA answers 2b and c : In general, states are not well-equipped to make such determinations, which is why it is far better to make job training and education programs universally available, and enable unemployed or under-employed Americans to be free to choose the services that best meet their own needs.
USDA question 2d: Are there evidence-based activities that States could offer through their SNAP E&T programs that would help reduce barriers to employment among ABAWDs? What kinds of support services, job-retention services and other activities would increase success of ABAWDs moving into gainful employment?
HFA answers 2d: USDA and States could carefully study the success of the Central European apprenticeship model as well as similar local models in the U.S., through which private companies train people who generally lack college degrees to obtain good paying jobs, often in the service or technology sectors.
USDA question 2e: Are there additional ways that States could incentivize employers to provide jobs to ABAWDs?
HFA answer 2e: States could give tax subsidies and/or direct wage add-ons to employers of ABAWDs, as well as expand state Earned Income Tax Credits to cover more ABAWDs. Many ABAWDS do not currently qualify for significant state or federal tax credits, making it more likely for their wages to keep them below or near the poverty line. The bottom line is that work must pay a living wage.
USDA question 2f: Should ABAWDs be subject to additional reporting requirements or be limited to a specific type of reporting system (e.g., change reporting, monthly reporting, quarterly reporting, or simplified reporting)? Have States that have assigned ABAWDs to a reporting system other than simplified reporting found this to be beneficial?
HFA answer 2f: The current reporting system is burdensome enough – often forcing ABAWDs to take time off work or work search activities to report to government offices – so reporting requirements should me made less frequent and less burdensome, and certainly not more frequent and more burdensome. If USDA truly wants ABAWDs to spend more hours in work or work search activities, then USDA should not require them to take time away from such activities to fill out more government paperwork.
USDA question 2g: What approaches have States found effective in communicating with ABAWDs to educate them on the work requirements, tools and resources that can help them find or keep employment, and crucial administrative actions or deadlines they must adhere to?
HFA answer 2g: We know from our direct work with SNAP participants and applicants nationwide that states are often highly ineffective in communicating with ABAWDS about work requirements, which is yet another reason to ease, not impose more burdensome, requirements.
USDA question 3: The accurate determination of whether an individual is physically or mentally unfit for employment is fundamental to applying the time limit to the proper individuals, and exempting others, consistent with the Act. In addition, it allows States to focus work strategies on those individuals who are truly capable of benefiting from them.
HFA answer 3: Most state agencies that administer SNAP are not at all well equipped to determine if a person is physically equipped for employment. This is another reason the extra ABAWD requirement should be eliminated entirely. Health determinations should be left up to health care professionals and their patients.
USDA question: 3a. What is the appropriate scope of conditions and indicators of physical or mental unfitness for employment under current statutory authority, particularly in State determinations of whether an individual is obviously physically or mentally unfit for employment? What level of State flexibility is appropriate in this area? Why?
HFA answer 3a: If these requirements are left in place, SNAP participants should have the widest latitude possible to provide documentation from health care professionals that they have a physical or mental health issue that prevents them from meeting work requirements.
USDA question 3b: How do current certification processes (use of technology, lack of face-to-face interaction) affect the ability to determine exceptions or exemptions to the ABAWD time limit? How can these processes be modified or enhanced to best support these determinations, while providing any needed reasonable accommodations for individuals?
HFA answer 3b: SNAP participants or applicants should be able to easily use phones, smart phones, home computers, faxes, and physical visits to offices for all needed communications with state or county offices. The convenience of the client – not the convenience of the states or countries – should always come first.
USDA question 3c: Who should determine whether a participant is fit to work? What technical and information resources, or other resources, would best support States to better screen for unfitness for employment and other exceptions to the ABAWD time limit? What performance and/or accountability measures would support this process?
HFA answer 3c: Health care professionals should make medial determinations.
USDA question 3d: How can the Department/States better engage and serve individuals determined to be unfit for employment? How can State agencies provide these individuals with services or opportunities that may increase their fitness for work?
HFA answer 3d: Every state should immediately expand its Medicaid coverage to every low-income every person and family in need – and ensure physical and mental health coverage to anyone who needs it – to ensure that as many of its residents are as healthy and fit for work as possible. ABAWDs without health coverage trend to be less healthy, and those who are less healthy face more challenges in finding and keeping employment.
USDA question 3e: What are best practices for the use of 15 percent exemptions in supporting the appropriate application of ABAWD requirements?
HFA answer 3e: States should carefully target their use of the 15% waivers to people who would ordinarily not be able to benefit from the geographic-specific waivers.
I close by noting that it is unfair and odd that federal policy – and especially federal policy relating to USDA programs – selectively applies work requirements only to programs primarily used by low-income Americans. When USDA lavishes millions of dollars of farm subsidies on wealthy individuals who happen to own farm land, there is no requirement that the subsidy recipient work at all, no less perform farm work on that parcel of land. When a stock holder in a corporation receives a financial benefit because that corporation receives financial assistance from USDA for operations in rural areas, there is no work requirement for such a stockholder. The monetary value of taxpayer funding received by wealthy land owners or business owners from USDA almost always dwarfs the meager federal assistance received by SNAP participants, which now averages only $1.42 per meal. If work requirements are to be applied to participants of federal aid, they should apply to people all programs, regardless of the economic status of the people who utilize those programs.