As many as 1 million Americans will stop receiving food stamps over the course of this year, the consequence of a controversial work mandate that has been reinstated in 22 states as the economy improves.

The 20-year-old rule – which was suspended in many states during the economic recession – requires that adults without children or disabilities must have a job in order to receive food stamps through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for more than three months, with some exceptions. Many states have begun to reimpose the federal rule as the economy recovers, with the largest group reviving it at the beginning of this year. As a result, many recipients’ three-month limit expired Friday.

Maine was one of the early states to take action, and more than 12,000 jobless, childless adults were removed in 2014 and 2015. Gov. Paul LePage’s office cited the state’s improving unemployment rate as evidence that fewer Mainers needed the help.

The change has reignited a fierce national debate between conservative leaders, who say waiving the mandate discourages people from working, and their liberal counterparts, who say the three-month time limit ignores the reality that jobs are still hard to come by for low-skilled workers.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who helped author the work requirement as a U.S. congressman in 1996, is among the conservative politicians arguing that able-bodied adults should not receive SNAP benefits if they are not working. At the end of 2013, Kasich decided not to request an extension of the statewide waiver of the work mandate, enforcing the rule in all but its most economically depressed, rural counties.

A spokesman for Kasich, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, said reinstating the requirement would prod people to seek work in the improving economy.

“These are, again, adults – no dependents, physically and mentally capable of working,” said Rob Nichols, a spokesman for Kasich’s presidential campaign, in a recent interview. “Just as much as we believe in the social safety net, we also believe it’s a sin not to help oneself.”

Between 500,000 and 1 million people will lose SNAP benefits over the course of 2016 as a result of the reinstated work mandate, according to an analysis by the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington. Currently, about 46 million people receive the aid.

Opponents of the work mandate say the three-month time limit is out of sync with the reality of the current job market. The average amount of time unemployed Americans spend looking for work has fallen since its peak in 2011, but is still almost 30 weeks, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics – roughly two and half times longer than the work requirement allows.


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