Food Stamps

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue wants to tighten automatic eligibility requirements for the food stamp program.

Americans live in one of the wealthiest countries in world history. The nation’s unemployment rate is down to 3.5 percent, near the natural rate that reflects voluntary job turnover. We argue about things like Donald Trump’s movie cameo, a mere trifle compared to what past generations endured.

Yet Americans still suffer from hunger. In 2019, 36 million Americans received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as food stamps. That’s down from 42 million when President Donald Trump took office.

This decline in food stamp enrollment demonstrates the impact of a growing economy, but the good times remain stubbornly elusive for some. The question, then, becomes what to do about this segment of the population.

The Trump administration wants to remove able-bodied adults from food stamp eligibility if they don’t look for work. The U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized new rules requiring those who are between the ages of 18 and 49 and without children to work, go to school, receive job training or volunteer to receive food stamp benefits after a three-month period. The change, which takes effect in April, does not apply to those who are over 50, disabled, pregnant or caretakers for children.

The USDA advanced these new rules after Congress was unable to add similar work requirements into last year’s farm bill. Work requirements led to a chorus of complaints about a heartless war on the poor, but a couple of points are worth making.

One is that these federal requirements already exist, but the USDA seeks to make it harder for states to receive exemptions from strict work requirements in economically distressed areas. The new threshold is a 6 percent unemployment rate, a level that did not exist in any single Missouri county in late 2019.

The other is that a rising minimum wage, at least in theory, provides an economic boost for the lowest tier of workers in the state. Missouri’s minimum wage increased to $9.45 an hour on Jan. 1, one of 20 states and 26 cities and counties that will see an increase on Jan. 1. Missouri’s minimum wage increases to $12 an hour in 2023, as part of a voter-approved proposition in 2018.

One of the most compelling arguments for an increased minimum wage is to boost the earnings power of more working adults. Already, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta reports that pay for the bottom quarter of wage earners rose 4.5 percent in November, compared to a year ago.

Finally, these work rules don’t target the most vulnerable population, like the elderly, disabled and families with children or dependents. The requirements simply make a reasonable request of those who are in the prime of their working careers.