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Three-quarters of a million people would likely lose their food stamps, or SNAP, benefits under a new proposal by the Trump administration. The stated goal is to encourage able-bodied adults to go to work and to get off government aid. Opponents predict people would go hungry instead. NPR's Pam Fessler reports.
PAM FESSLER, BYLINE: They're called ABAWDs, able-bodied adults without dependents - just the kind of people the administration thinks should work, especially with unemployment the lowest it's spending years. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue made the case recently to a House committee.
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SONNY PERDUE: We believe the purpose of our welfare system should help people to become independent rather than permanent dependency. We believe it does this. We think we are helping people to, again, move into the dignity of work and the respect of providing for their families.
FESSLER: To do that, the administration would stop food stamps after three months for ABAWDs who don't work, volunteer or go to job training at least 20 hours a week. That's already the law, but many states waive it. The administration would make those waivers much harder to come by, something Tennessee Republican Congressman Scott DesJarlais told Perdue seems like a good idea.
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SCOTT DESJARLAIS: People believe that able-bodied people who can work should work. Do you have any idea why there might be so many - so much pushback and concerns on this measure?
PERDUE: I have no clue.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Would you like some salad with that?
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, put a little salad...
FESSLER: People who come to the Franciscan Center in Baltimore for something to eat think they do have a clue. For many of them, this will be their only meal of the day, even if they do get food stamps.
ALTON ROYAL: Right now I'm literally depending on places like this - like - you know, this is my peanut butter and jelly I had to pack up right here.
FESSLER: Forty-one-year-old Alton Royal opens a small black plastic bag to show me a couple of rolls and pieces of bread. He gets $185 a month in SNAP benefits but worries he'll lose them because he can't find work.
ROYAL: It's not that simple, you know? I'm an ex-convict - you know? - just to keep it real. But still, I have to eat. I have to still try and find employment, but I have those barriers against me.
FESSLER: Including a severely injured leg. Some people here do work but not enough. One man told me he has a janitorial job at the Baltimore Orioles stadium but only when the team is in town. Royal says others here face different barriers, such as homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction.
ROYAL: People don't want to not have jobs, you know? That's sort of a myth that's created. Everybody I know want to work - everybody.
MICHAEL J. WILSON: Threatening to take away their food doesn't help them get a job.
FESSLER: Michael J. Wilson is director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, an advocacy group. He notes that by the administration's own admission, 755,000 individuals would not meet the new requirements. And it's not just for lack of work, says Wilson, but lack of other options.
WILSON: If all those folks showed up at a job training site tomorrow, they would swamp the offices. There's not enough space for them to be able to do this.
FESSLER: Agriculture Secretary Perdue notes that there would be exceptions for those who are disabled or can't work for other reasons, but it's largely left up to the states. The administration tried to get the work requirement enacted last year, but Congress rejected it. Democrats have now threatened to sue if the administration goes forward with the proposed rule. The administration argues that it's trying to break the cycle of dependency. Craig Gundersen, a SNAP expert at the University of Illinois, questions the logic.
CRAIG GUNDERSEN: We don't want to go back to, like, these poor houses back in the 1800s, where you had to work in order to get food. That's just not consistent with the goals of the program.
FESSLER: Which is to reduce hunger, something it does very well. Gundersen says there's no evidence that getting food stamps discourages work. Tomorrow's the last day the public can comment on the proposed rule which could go into effect later this year. Pam Fessler, NPR News, Washington.
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