Spurned by Congress, Trump administration seeks food stamp curbs via rule change

WASHINGTON, Dec 20 (Reuters) - The Trump administration said on Thursday it aims to tighten food stamp restrictions for some able-bodied Americans through an administrative action that would save billions of dollars, after efforts to do so through Congress failed.

The move could inflame political divisions over the program - the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - which provides free food to some 40 million Americans who qualify, or about 12 percent of the total U.S. population.

President Donald Trump's administration has argued that many Americans using the program do not need it given the strong economy and low unemployment and should be removed as a way to save taxpayers billions of dollars.

The Trump administration said late Wednesday that the proposed rule would save American taxpayers $15 billion over the next decade.

Mainly Democratic lawmakers, meanwhile, have promised to defend the program and last week blocked an effort by some Republicans to pass new restrictions through the Farm Bill.

Under the federal SNAP program, qualifying able-bodied adults without dependants (ABAWDs) can only get food stamps for three months over three years, a rule called the time limit that is intended to encourage people to find work. But states can circumvent the time limit and extend the benefits for ABAWDs by using waivers if they see fit.

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A sign on a frozen food case indicates that Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) and food stamps are accepted at the Dollar General Corp. store in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, U.S., on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011. Dollar General is scheduled to announce earnings results on Dec. 5. Photographer: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 27: Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., right, and D.C. resident Vanessa Sherrie shop at the Safeway on 14th St., SE, to kick off the National Food Stamp Challenge. The challenge asks participants spend $31.50 on a week's worth of groceries, which is the average allotment of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, formerly called Food Stamps. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Supporters for passage of a new agriculture law rally near the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2012. The farm legislation funds federal nutrition programs including food stamps, as well as subsidies to farmers that lower raw-materials costs for companies. Photographer: Rich Clement/Bloomberg via Getty Images
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 17: Members of Progressive Democrats of America and other activists hold a rally in front of Rep. Henry Waxman's office on June 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The protestors were asking the congressman to vote against a House farm bill that would reduce federal spending on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program by $20.5 billion and affect food stamps and other services for the poor. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 17: Gracie Shannon-Sanborn, 5, holds a sign as she joins her father Allen Sanborn (L) and members of Progressive Democrats of America and other activists as they hold a rally in front of Rep. Henry Waxman's office on June 17, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. The protestors were asking the congressman to vote against a House farm bill that would reduce federal spending on the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program by $20.5 billion and affect food stamps and other services for the poor. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 01: Volunteers sort carrots at the SF-Marin Food Bank on May 1, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Food banks are bracing for higher food costs and an increased demand for food from the needy as food prices are skyrocketing due to a reduction in food stamps and drought conditions in several states. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
SAN FRANCISCO, CA - MAY 01: A worker wraps a pallet of donated produce at the SF-Marin Food Bank on May 1, 2014 in San Francisco, California. Food banks are bracing for higher food costs and an increased demand for food from the needy as food prices are skyrocketing due to a reduction in food stamps and drought conditions in several states. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 7: U.S. President Barack Obama speaks about the Farm Bill, or the the Agriculture Act of 2014, into law after speaking about the importance of the Farm Bill to America's economy at Michigan State University February 7, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. Obama signed the largely bi-partisan legislation that reforms the farm insurance program and trims the food stamps by one percent. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
EAST LANSING, MI - FEBRUARY 7: The stage sits ready for U.S. President Barack Obama to sign the Agriculture Act of 2014 into law in the Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center at Michigan State University February 7, 2014 in East Lansing, Michigan. Obama will sign the largely bi-partisan legislation that reforms the farm insurance program and trims the food stamps by one percent. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 05: Brooklyn residents receive free food as part of a Bowery Mission outreach program on December 5, 2013 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. The Christan ministry says it have seen a spike in need since food stamps to low-income families were reduced in November with cuts to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
BELLE GLADE, FL - APRIL 14: Yosef Muslet, a local business owner in Belle Glade says that he knows many seniors in the town that qualify for SNAP but will not apply. The sign (L) for food stamps shows that the program is administered with a credit card like payment system. He thinks some seniors think that food stamps are still stamps from a book that can be embarrassing when used. Many low-income seniors qualify to participate in the S.N.A.P. (food stamps) program but do not receive the benefit, often because they are too proud or unaware of it. Photo by Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC- JULY 28: , Carl G. Purvenas-Smith (L) sells produce to Sunday Smith (C) and Vanessa Edwards at the Ward 8 Farmers Market Cooperative on Saturday, July 28th, 2012. Carl brings his produce from Terrapin Station Herb Farm in York, PA. Carl and several other farmers at the market accept cash, WIC coupons, food stamps, along with credit and debit cards. (Photo by Tracy A. Woodward/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
A sign on a frozen food case filled with ice cream and other desserts indicates that Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) and food stamps are accepted at the Dollar General Corp. store in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, U.S., on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2011. Dollar General is scheduled to announce earnings results on Dec. 5. Photographer: Emile Wamsteker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
PORTLAND, ME - NOVEMBER 23: Sindel Theberge, 7, points to a bag of Hershey's chocolate at at Mellen Street Market, which accepts EBT and food stamps, in Portland, ME on Monday, November 23, 2015. A new DHHS proposal is asking for a federal waiver to allow the department to ban purchase of junk food with EBT or food stamps. 'It's probably a good idea, it's not exactly nutritious to be buying candy,' Holly Plourde, Theberge's mother, said. (Photo by Whitney Hayward/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)
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The USDA said the department was planning to end statewide waivers unless a state qualifies for extended unemployment benefits due to bad economic conditions, and would limit waivers in larger geographic areas that are deemed to have sufficient available jobs.

Currently, 29 states administer partial waivers while seven states offer statewide waivers.

In a briefing late on Wednesday, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said 75 percent of the 3.8 million able-bodied individuals receiving food stamps were not working in 2016, the latest year for which the USDA has the data.

"This is unacceptable to most Americans and belies common sense, particularly when employment opportunities are plentiful as they currently are," he said. "The nation's economy is booming and unemployment is at lowest...since 1969."

Growth forecasts for the fourth quarter are around a 2.7 percent annualized rate. The economy grew at a 3.5 percent pace in the third quarter. The U.S. unemployment rate was unchanged at near a 49-year low of 3.7 percent.

The Department also said it was strengthening criteria for approval of waivers, for example, by limiting their duration to ensure they do not outlast poor economic conditions.

A Trump-led proposal to tighten the work requirements for the SNAP program through the Farm Bill was at the heart of a months-long, bitter and partisan debate that delayed the critical legislation for months. It failed to garner enough support in Congress and was left out of the final bill.

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