In February 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed changes to tighten criteria for waivers of time limits related to work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a federally funded and state-administered food assistance program for low-income individuals.
Currently, SNAP recipients who qualify as able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWDs — nondisabled, not caring for a child or dependent, and between ages 18 and 49 — are limited to three months of benefits within a three-year period, unless they work or participate in a qualifying program for at least 20 hours a week. When the unemployment rate in a state or region is over 10 percent, or if there are not a sufficient number of jobs there, the USDA may grant a statewide or regional waiver of the three-month time limit.
Waivers are generally approved for one year, but the USDA may approve waivers for shorter or longer periods. Common reasons for approval include having a recent 12-month unemployment rate over 10 percent; having a recent three-month unemployment rate above 10 percent; receiving a Labor Surplus Area (LSA) designation from the Department of Labor (DOL); qualifying for extended unemployment benefits; or having a recent 24-month average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average for the same 24-month period.
Arkansas previously had a statewide time-limit waiver but did not reapply after the waiver expired in 2016. For fiscal year 2019, the DOL Employment and Training Administration designated five areas in Arkansas as LSAs. These areas include Chicot, Jackson, Mississippi, and Van Buren counties and the city of Pine Bluff.
Under the USDA’s proposed changes, a state that applies for a waiver on the basis of having a recent 24-month average unemployment rate 20 percent above the national average for the same 24-month period would also be required to have an unemployment rate of 7 percent or above. The USDA also proposes eliminating certain criteria, including receiving an LSA designation and having a historical seasonal unemployment rate over 10 percent. According to USDA estimates, the percentage of ABAWDs who do not live in a waiver area and are subject to the three-month time limit would increase from 60 to 90. The USDA also estimates that two-thirds (755,000 individuals in fiscal year 2020) of the ABAWDs newly subject to the three-month time limit would lose their SNAP benefits for not meeting the work requirement.