Some food stamp recipients in rural Minnesota counties would need to find a job to continue receiving food assistance under proposed new regulations announced Thursday by the Trump administration.

The move would strip food support from people who are most in need of help, critics said, adding that it amounts to an end-run around Congress, which had dropped a similar proposal championed by President Donald Trump in order to break a deadlock on the 2018 farm bill. That bill was signed into law on Thursday.

The food stamp program, known officially as SNAP or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, requires that childless adults under age 50 must work 80 hours a month in order to qualify. But states have been allowed to exempt areas that had high unemployment or a lack of jobs.

Altogether, 454,000 Minnesotans are on SNAP, which is about 1 out of every 12 residents. The work requirements do not apply to people with disabilities, the elderly, pregnant women and adults caring for dependents.

In Minnesota, single adults in 30 counties and 11 American Indian reservations are exempt from the work requirements, but the regulations proposed Thursday by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would make it tougher for states to grant such exemptions.

“Our food shelf visits will go up if people lose access to SNAP benefits through this work requirement,” said Lisa Mears, chief executive at Family Pathways, a nonprofit in North Branch that has food shelves in five Minnesota counties. All but one of those counties is exempt from the work requirements.

“The economy is thriving, but in the past few months we have seen our food shelf visits go up,” said Mears. Her organization has seven food shelves and 22 mobile food shelves that serve about 17,000 people a year.

The proposed rules will be published in the Federal Register, a daily government journal of proposed and final federal regulations, after which the public will be allowed to comment on them for two months.

Walz: Rules ‘ridiculous’

Gov.-elect Tim Walz said he is “hugely disappointed” by the proposal.

“There’s a reason that the farm bill took a year to pass — because they insisted on these ridiculous rules that are more reporting requirements. They don’t do anything. And it’s to set up a narrative that people who need food assistance are somehow not worthy of getting it.”

As a member of Congress, Walz said, he worked on the language in the farm bill, and “we thought we put this to rest. But, again, I just want to stress: Five days before Christmas and all they have to do is come after people who need food assistance? The state of Minnesota has more compassion than that.”

The Minnesota Department of Human Services, which administers the SNAP program along with the counties, said it was still analyzing the impact of the proposal and did not have an estimate of how many SNAP recipients would be affected.

“Right now we anticipate that this rule is likely to increase hunger and destitution in Minnesota for some of the poorest people in our state,” said Roberta Downing, assistant commissioner for external relations.

A paperwork problem

Single childless adults qualify for food stamps if they make less than $20,000 a year. Downing said that in some of the exempt counties, up to half of the jobs are part-time, with unreliable hours.

On average, food stamps provide $111 in aid a month, which means that many on the program also need to rely on food shelves.

“The SNAP benefits are not high to begin with,” said Karina McLellan, executive director of Falls Hunger Coalition in International Falls, which is in Koochiching County, one of the counties that has been exempt from work requirements.

“You will probably see an increase in food shelf use and the food shelves would just need to be prepared for that,” she said. Increasing demand will require her organization to do more fundraising, she said.

Even SNAP recipients who do find jobs could still lose their benefits if they don’t file the necessary paperwork with the county.

“It is not about just the work requirements,” said Jessica Webster, a staff attorney at Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid. “It is about the proof and the paperwork, and that is why hundreds of thousands of people nationwide lose benefits, because they can’t prove their status.”

Work requirements were suspended nationwide after the Great Recession. But when they were reinstated in 2014 and 2015, nearly 47,000 single adults with adult children in Minnesota lost food benefits. A state official later acknowledged that the government was not prepared for the influx and that many people had lost assistance because of paperwork problems.

Since then, the state has beefed up training programs to help SNAP recipients get jobs.

“Minnesota has been working so hard to try to connect single adults with work opportunities,” said Webster. “There has been a lot of momentum, and this throws us backwards.”