USDA is finalizing its rulemaking proposed Feb. 1, 2019. The rule revises the conditions under which USDA would waive, when requested by states, the able-bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD) time limit in areas that have an unemployment rate of over 10 percent or a lack of sufficient jobs. In addition, the rule limits carryover of ABAWD discretionary exemptions.
Section 6(o) of the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, as amended (the Act) generally limits the amount of time an able-bodied adult without dependents (ABAWD) can receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to 3 months in a 36- month period (the time limit), unless the individual meets certain work requirements. On the request of a state SNAP agency, the Act also gives the U.S. Department of Agriculture (the Department) the authority to temporarily waive the time limit in areas that have an unemployment rate of over 10 percent or a lack of sufficient jobs. The Act also provides state agencies with a limited number of discretionary exemptions that can be used by states to extend SNAP eligibility for ABAWDs subject to the time limit.
The ABAWD time limit and work requirement were initially enacted as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), which was signed into law on Aug. 22, 1996. According to the Conference Report accompanying PRWORA, the main purpose of PRWORA was to “[promote] work over welfare and self-reliance over dependency, thereby showing true 6 compassion for those in America who need a helping hand, not a handout” (H. Rept. 104- 725, p. 261). Congress also explained that the legislation “reforms welfare to make it more consistent with fundamental American values—by rewarding work and self-reliance, encouraging personal responsibility, and restoring a sense of hope in the future” (H. Rept. 104-725, p. 263). By adding the time limit and work requirement to the Food Stamp Act of 1977 (now the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, as amended) at section 6(o), Congress highlighted the importance of work and self-sufficiency for the ABAWD population. Specifically, Congress noted that: “It [PRWORA] makes substantial reforms in the Food Stamp Program, cracking down on fraud and abuse and applying tough work standards” (H. Rept. 104-725, p. 261). The time limit and work requirement for ABAWDs enacted by PRWORA has been maintained by Congress through several reauthorizations of the Federal law governing SNAP, most recently through the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018, indicating that Congress remains committed to promoting work, self-reliance, and personal accountability among the ABAWD population.
On April 2, 2018, the President signed Executive Order (E.O.) 13828, on “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility.” E.O. 13828 sets forth the Administration's policy that, with regard to social welfare, the Federal Government's role is to clear paths to self-sufficiency and to invest in Federal programs that are effective at moving people into the workforce and out of poverty. Federal programs should empower individuals to seek employment and achieve economic independence, while reserving public assistance programs for those who are truly in need. Government must examine Federal policies and programs to ensure that they are consistent with principles that are central to the American spirit—work, free enterprise, and safeguarding human and economic resources.
E.O. 13828 also provided a list of “Principles of Economic Mobility” that should inform and guide program administration in the context of applicable law. One such principle, relevant to this rulemaking, is to “improve employment outcomes and economic independence.” To advance this principle, the E.O. calls for Federal agencies to “first enforce work requirements that are required by law [and to] also strengthen requirements that promote obtaining and maintaining employment in order to move people to independence.” Moreover, E.O. 13828 directed Federal agencies to review regulations and guidance documents to advance these objectives consistent with the principles of increasing self-sufficiency, well-being, and economic mobility.
In accordance with E.O.13828 and other Administration priorities, the Department undertook a review of its regulations and policies associated with ABAWDs. The time limit and work requirement for ABAWDs in SNAP clearly align with E.O. 13828 and the Department's shared principle that those who can work—adults who are able-bodied and do not have dependent care responsibilities—should work or participate in a work program, as a condition of receiving their benefits.
The Department’s review of these rules, along with its more than 20 years of operational experience overseeing the states’ administration of the ABAWD time limit, has led the Department to identify key weaknesses in the current regulations on ABAWD time limit waivers. Over the years, states have taken advantage of these weaknesses to request and qualify for waivers of the ABAWD time limit in areas where it is questionable as to whether the statutory conditions for approval as outlined in section 8 6(o)(4) of the Act, an unemployment rate over 10 percent or a lack of sufficient jobs, are present. This manipulation is demonstrated by the fact that currently about half of the ABAWDs on SNAP live in waived areas, despite low unemployment levels across the majority of the country.
Similarly, the current regulations’ interpretation of section 6(o)(6)(G) of the Act, which requires the Department to increase or decrease the number of exemptions available to the state during the fiscal year based on the prior year’s usage, allows states to carryover and accumulate unused ABAWD discretionary exemptions indefinitely. As a result, states have accumulated extremely high amounts of unused discretionary exemptions that well exceed the number allotted to each state for the fiscal year. The Department views the accumulation of such significant amounts of unused exemptions to be an unintended outcome of the current regulations. In the Department’s view, the indefinite carryover and accumulation of unused exemptions is inconsistent with Congress’ decision to limit the number of exemptions available to states in a given fiscal year, as expressed by sections 6(o)(6)(C), (D), and (E) of the Act.
The Department is committed to providing SNAP benefits to those who truly need them, but it must also encourage participants to take proactive steps toward long-term self-sufficiency. In order to ensure these goals are met, the Department believes that waivers of the time limit should only be permitted when the circumstances clearly warrant that action and meet the statutory conditions for approval.
Therefore, the Department is amending its regulations to address these policy issues by setting clear limitations and introducing new safeguards. In particular, the Department is codifying a strict definition of an “area in which the individuals reside” for purposes of 9 a geographic area covered by a waiver; and redefining what demonstrates that such an area “has an unemployment rate of over 10 percent” or “does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for the individuals” for purposes of such an area qualifying for a waiver. In addition, the Department is setting a reasonable limit on the carryover of unused discretionary exemptions. The Department is making these changes in order to encourage broader application of the time limit, to more appropriately target waivers and limit discretionary exemptions, and to incentivize ABAWDs to proactively pursue any and all work and/or work training opportunities within commuting distance of their residences.
- Final Rule: SNAP Requirements for Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents
-- Q&As for states
-- Implementations of Regulatory Changes to ABAWD Waiver Standards and Discretionary Exemptions
-- State Agency Readiness to Apply the ABAWD Time Limit and Serve ABAWDs
- Fact Sheet: Employment for Work-Capable Adults
- 2019 Memo to states: SNAP employment and training resources available
- 2018 Secretary Perdue’s letter to states concerning when and where to request ABAWD waivers
- 2015 memo providing guidance to states in taking the balanced approach necessary to properly implement the SNAP time limit for ABAWDs.