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What new USDA restrictions mean for food stamp recipients

After new restrictions on federal food stamps didn't make it into the farm bill, the USDA is implementing them instead. Roughly 755,000 Americans may feel the impact of the changes, which limit states' ability to grant work requirement waivers in areas with high unemployment. The Washington Post’s Jeff Stein joins William Brangham to explain who the affected populations are and what comes next.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced new rules that will restrict who can qualify to receive federal food assistance, known as the SNAP program, or food stamps.

    As William Brangham reports, the move comes after similar explicit restrictions were blocked from the farm bill that President Trump signed today.

  • William Brangham:

    That's right, Judy.

    Republicans and President Trump wanted restrictions to the food stamp program to be included in the $867 billion farm bill, but Democrats balked, and so those specific restrictions were left out.

    But the USDA — that's the agency that oversees the food stamp program — announced today that it is effectively expanding work requirements and allowing fewer exemptions for hundreds of thousands of Americans who receive this federal help buying their groceries.

    Republicans have long sought these kinds of changes, arguing that too many able-bodied Americans are getting help that they don't really need. Democrats argue these requirements are too harsh and will hurt unemployed and underemployed Americans.

    Jeffrey Stein has been covering all this for The Washington Post. And he joins me now.

    Thank you for being here.

  • Jeff Stein:

    Thanks for having me.

  • William Brangham:

    So, tell us a little bit more. The USDA put out these rules today. What specific changes are they making?

  • Jeff Stein:

    So, I think what's really important to understand is that the vast majority of the 40 million Americans who receive food stamps are working.

    And there's ways around — what basically these states are allowed to do is to grant exemptions for these work requirements for people with SNAP benefits, if they live in an area with very high unemployment.

    That way, people can still get the benefits they need to be able to eat, even if they can't work because there's no jobs and job opportunities in their areas.

    What the administration, what the Trump administration said today was, we're going to restrict and pare back the ability of states to grant these waivers, which will have the effect of cutting off potentially 755,000 people from the program.

  • William Brangham:

    And the argument that they're making is, is that the rules right now are too lenient, in the sense that — you're saying, if the vast majority of people who receive food stamps are working, what do the requirements actually change?

  • Jeff Stein:

    So, right now, the way the food stamp waiver works is, if your area, your county has an unemployment rate more than 20 percent of the national average, then you can get the waiver.

    This would change that to set it at 7 percent. So, your county would have to have an unemployment rate of above 7 percent to receive the exemption. And there are approximately 900 counties across the country that fall into that designation. So, this could affect a lot of people who rely on these benefits.

  • William Brangham:

    So, of those 750,000 people, do we know kind of who those people are? Are they old? Are they young? Are they — like, who is the demographic there?

  • Jeff Stein:

    That's a good question.

    It's mostly white people. It's mostly poor people. The average income of this group is about $4,000 a year, which is…

  • William Brangham:

    Four thousand dollars a year?

  • Jeff Stein:

    That's really not a lot of money.

    But there are — throughout the country, 36 separate states and territories have these waivers. So that's basically half the country, more than half the country. So it's a — it's a wide swathe of the poor in America.

  • William Brangham:

    The Republicans have long argued — this isn't just a fight that's happening in the Trump administration.

    They have long argued that people need to work, and, if they work, then they can receive these benefits. Like, this has been a long ideological fight that the Republicans and the Democrats have been fighting for a long time.

    I understand that the Republicans wanted even more severe restrictions in the farm bill itself.

  • Jeff Stein:

    That's correct.

    What they wanted to do was to restrict the ability of people with children from 6 to 12 and elderly people — well, not exactly elderly, but between the ages of 49 and 59 — to be able to receive food stamp benefits.

    Those changes were rejected because congressional Republicans needed votes in the Senate to pass their farm bill. So, the Trump administration is just going to do this unilaterally, bypassing Congress entirely.

  • William Brangham:

    So, the rules have been put forward. I understand there's a 90-day window now.

    And I understand — I have already seen in my e-mails and on Twitter that the Democrats and other groups that support the food stamp program are really fighting this. Like, is there anything that they can do right now to change this?

  • Jeff Stein:

    There's going to be a legal challenge. It's not exactly clear who's going to file that. My guess is, it's going to be governors in Democratic states that say this impedes our ability to effectively administer the program. But we haven't heard that yet.

    Right now, it really seems like the Trump administration is going to be able to do this without anyone stopping them. Maybe that will change. And we will see.

  • William Brangham:

    Jeffrey Stein of "The Washington Post," thank you very much for being here.

  • Jeff Stein:

    Thanks for having me.

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