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Up to 2,500 Tennesseans could lose food stamp benefits under Trump rule change


Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue testifies Feb. 27, 2019, during a House Agriculture Committee hearing on Capitol Hill about the Trump administration's plan to tighten automatic eligibility requirements for the food stamp program. (Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Up to 2,500 Tennesseans could lose food stamp benefits next year under a new rule being implemented by President Donald Trump's administration.


The change made by the U.S. Department of Agriculture will take effect April 1 and prohibits states from exempting able-bodied adults without dependents from a work requirement to receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.


According to the Tennessee Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP, 2,499 people from seven counties fall into the category of able-bodied adults without dependents, or ABAWD, whose work requirements are waived.


Those counties — Bledsoe, Hancock, Jackson, Lake, Lauderdale, McNairy and Scott — are considered distressed based on their poverty and unemployment rates, among other factors, DHS spokesman Sky Arnold said.


The vast majority of SNAP recipients must work, participate in certain education or training activities or volunteer for at least 20 hours each week to continue to receive benefits. The requirement does allow those adults three cumulative months of SNAP benefits during a three-year period without meeting the work requirements.


Arnold said the department is in the process of "researching the future impact and potential next steps" based on the rule finalized last week by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, including how DHS will alert those who could potentially be affected by the change.


During previous rule changes related to a waiver for able-bodied adults, Arnold said DHS communicated with recipients through "a number of methods," including sending letters and explaining the change during appointments for recertification.


The department has also previously held resource fairs in those counties to assist with job hunting and finding educational opportunities, though it's unclear whether DHS will do so for the current rule change.


Tennessee serves roughly 880,000 individuals through the federal SNAP program.


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The federal rule change, first proposed in February, is expected to result in roughly 700,000 recipients being removed from the SNAP program nationwide.


The original work requirement was lifted during the 2008 recession, but Tennessee in 2017 reinstated it for able-bodied adults in all but the distressed counties.


The USDA estimates the change will save the federal government $5.5 billion over the next five years.


Democrats, including U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Memphis, have criticized the change.


Before it was finalized, Cohen announced in July that he was against the proposed change.


"Under the current SNAP rules, benefits can slowly phase out as incomes increase," Cohen tweeted at the time. "Trump’s proposed change would immediately end benefits at a set point. This penalizes workers for getting a raise or working additional hours & will trap people in poverty."


Reach Natalie Allison at nallison@tennessean.com. Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.

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