Federal Judge Blocks Trump Admin’s Effort to Tighten Food Stamp Program

March 14, 2020 Updated: March 14, 2020

A federal judge has blocked a Trump administration rule that aims to reduce the number of able-bodied adults from receiving food stamps if they do not meet work-related requirements.

Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the D.C. District Court on Friday granted a preliminary injunction (pdf) that blocks a new rule, set to come into effect on April 1, that would limit a state’s ability to seek waivers to extend benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, to able-bodied adults without dependents for more than three months.

Under the current rules, able-bodied adults without dependents are limited from receiving food stamps to three months unless they meet certain work requirements. Upon the request from a state, the department can temporarily waive that time limit in locales that have an unemployment rate of over 10 percent or a lack of sufficient jobs. Able-bodied adults without dependents are generally defined as individuals between the ages of 18 and 49 who are not physically or mentally unfit for work and do not have responsibilities for a dependent child.

The time limit and work requirements for this group of adults were enacted by Congress in 1996 as part of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The purpose of the 1996 law was to “[promote] work over welfare and self-reliance over dependency, thereby showing true … compassion for those in America who need a helping hand, not a handout.” It was Congress’s attempt to reform “welfare to make it more consistent with fundamental American values—by rewarding work and self-reliance, encouraging personal responsibility, and restoring a sense of hope in the future.”

In 2018, President Donald Trump signed an executive order on “Reducing Poverty in America by Promoting Opportunity and Economic Mobility,” which sets the administration’s direction on creating more self-sufficiency and working toward moving people into the workforce and out of poverty.

The new rule, published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) last December, seeks to tighten conditions in which the department could grant these states’ requests for waivers to allow these adults to continue receiving food stamps without meeting the work requirements. The rule also attempts to limit the number of discretionary exemptions that can be used by states to extend SNAP eligibility for this group of adults subject to the time limit.

The department stated that they identified weaknesses in the current rule on time limit waivers upon review. It said that states have, over the years, taken advantage of the weaknesses and have made requests in areas where it is questionable whether they had met the requirements of receiving a waiver.

Following the rule’s promulgation, 19 states, the District of Columbia, the City of New York, and three private plaintiffs sued the Trump administration in multiple lawsuits in a bid to block the rule from going into effect. The states argued in their lawsuit that the rule was unlawful because it undermines Congress’s intent for SNAP and was made for arbitrary and capricious reasons (pdf).

In her ruling, Howell agreed that the changes to the time limit waivers are unlawful “because they are arbitrary and capricious,” while adding that the department will be blocked from implementing that part of the rule pending final judicial review.

She also noted that the new rules will impact nearly 700,000 people and that programs to address the nutritional needs of people such as the food stamp program are particularly essential during the coronavirus outbreak.

“Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential,” Howell wrote.

Trump declared a national emergency on Friday to curb the spread of the coronavirus pandemic after more than 1,700 cases were confirmed in the United States. His action will provide up to $50 billion in disaster relief funds to state and local governments in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, the disease the new coronavirus causes.

Meanwhile, Howell allowed the discretionary exemption portion of the rule to move forward. That portion was set to go into effect on Oct. 1.

Several state attorneys general celebrated the decision.

“A judge ruled in favor of my lawsuit w/@AGKarlRacine against the Trump admin’s unlawful changes to SNAP, which would have denied over 700,000 Americans access to basic food assistance,” New York Attorney General Letitia James, one of the states leading the lawsuit, wrote in a Twitter post. “Millions rely on SNAP to eat & this ruling is a huge victory for our entire nation.”

“This is a major victory for our country’s most vulnerable residents who rely on SNAP to eat,” D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, who is also leading the lawsuit, wrote in a post.

A USDA spokesperson told The Epoch Times in an emailed statement that the department “disagrees with the court’s reasoning and will appeal its decision.”

Jack Phillips contributed to this report.

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