WOODSTOCK – While Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program funding has been assured for February, more questions have arisen over the long-term future of the program.

Congress sparred over passing the 2018 Farm Bill for months due to a provision that would change the process for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) to apply for work requirement waivers. Under the current rules, able bodied adults are only eligible to receive three months of benefits every 36 months — the 3 in 36 rule — if they are not working at least 80 hours a month. But, state agencies can apply to waive the rule where unemployment rates are above 10 percent.

While the provision didn’t make it into the 2018 Farm Bill, USDA officials are floating a rule proposal that would change the waiver process.

Carla Taylor, the Shenandoah County director of social services, said the waiver changes would be a small hurdle to clear if the proposed rule is passed.

“This state has a pretty strong philosophical leaning toward pro-work,” Taylor said. “There’s a lot of rural Virginians, and they work hard. They think that if anyone works hard, they can probably do OK. That sentiment is passed on in the policies and in the rulemaking. You catch that.”

Department of Agriculture officials question whether the strong work ethic Taylor talks about in Virginia is uniform around the country. In a 55-page document outlining the department’s proposal and reasoning for clamping down on waivers, the USDA argues the system set up to transition men and women from assistance to self-sufficiency is being abused — mainly by states.

“...the Department has determined that the standards for waiver should be strengthened to ensure that waivers of the ABAWD time limit are used in a limited manner only for areas in which jobs are unavailable,” the document reads. “Right now, nearly half of ABAWDs live in areas that are covered by waivers despite a strong economy.”

National unemployment rates have been steadily decreasing since a 10-year peak of 10.2 percent in October 2008. During the Great Recession, when swathes of the country were devastated by jobs disappearing almost overnight, work requirement waivers were necessary, the USDA said in the rule proposal. However, in recent years, some states, USDA officials said in the proposal, are continuing to treat their localities as if they are in the midst of the recession.

Some states are continuing to apply for and receive waivers because their unemployment rates are high compared to the national average, “regardless of how low local areas unemployment rates fall,” the rule proposal said. The rule would institute an unemployment rate floor as a marker the rate must fall to in order to apply for waivers.

Taylor explained Virginia has a unique way of running its social services program. While the social service system around the country is a top-down line — the federal government gives states requirements to meet and the state works with local programs — each state operates differently, Taylor said.

“In Virginia, the federal programs flow to the state but it is a state-supervised, locally administered system,” she said. “They are responsible for implementing what the state proposes and requires.”

Work requirements and work programs are nothing new, Taylor said, not solely because of the philosophical leanings of Virginians, but also in preparation for the Medicaid expansion work requirement.

Taylor said the groundwork laid by current work requirements for temporary assistance for needy families (TANF) benefits gives her department a starting point.

“In the world of TANF....they wanted to get people off of that as a subsistence so it has time limits and a work requirement,” Taylor explained. ”I suspect they’ll take the infrastructure they already have with TANF and build on it.”

Strong systems in place and low unemployment rates mean any rule changes should have little effect on recipients in Shenandoah County. Taylor said she is more concerned about the complexity DSS administrators are facing.

“It adds a layer of administrative burden, and it also requires a certain level of responsiveness by the clients,” Taylor said. “I think it will put a burden on the clients as well. But the tradeoff is that it hopefully will invigorate the whole employment assistance paradigm.”

Taylor insists that a desire to work is not a problem in Shenandoah County.

“Our clients want to work,” Taylor said, “but it’s not like we have a bunch of people who want to sit on the couch and eat bonbons. That’s a myth.”

Contact Max Thornberry at mthornberry@nvdaily.com