WASHINGTON (CN) — As COVID-19 cripples the U.S. economy, the Trump administration’s attempt to cut food stamps for nearly 700,000 Americans drew a powerful rebuke from an injunction-wielding federal judge.
“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,” wrote Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell, using an abbreviation for the food stamp benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The federal rule set to go into effect next month would impact over 1 million Americans, clamping stricter requirements on states that award food stamps. To protect SNAP benefits from coast to coast, a coalition of 19 states, New York City and the District of Columbia sued the Department of Agriculture in January.
As Howell issued the challengers an injunction late Friday, all across America, city and state leaders announced closures and various restrictions on schools, bars, restaurants and other facilities to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus. The parallels between the pandemic and health and the food stamps program were not lost on the Obama-appointed Howell, who noted that paid sick leave is limited or nonexistent access for low-wage workers in the U.S.
“The pandemic has put these already more vulnerable workers at higher risk of losing much-needed income, or even their jobs,” the 84-page opinion states.
In an interview Monday, Robert Hawkins, assistant dean and director of undergraduate studies at New York University’s Silver School of Social Work, underscored that bottom line.
“I certainly believe that this is not the time to cut food stamps,” Hawkins said, emphasizing that families supported by SNAP receive less than $300 a month and will not be able to buy food if cut from the program.
“In fact, this is a time to consider increasing public benefits, not cutting them,” Hawkins continued.
The House bill responding to COVID-19 is in final legislative stages, expected to pass the Senate later this week. The package would include a federal mandate to employers to provide paid sick leave for workers who stay home with symptoms of the respiratory disease.
But Hawkins warned the safety measure by Congress may not be sufficient to reassure low-income workers that they can call in sick and not risk losing their job.
“It is so embedded in our culture that we penalize low-income people, working people,” the professor said. “They’re so accustomed to being penalized that their expectation is that they will be, so I think it will take a while for them to have a different perspective on this.”
Given the lengthy incubation period between a person contracting COVID-19 and showing symptoms, public health experts are urging the need for social distancing — a kind of self-imposed withdrawal from society before such conduct is mandatory, as has happened in countries like Italy.
How to balance that advice against lost wages, however, poses a complication. “The only way we’re going to keep people home, ultimately, is if we force them to stay home, and we guarantee them pay,” said Hawkins.
Julia Henly, who chairs the doctoral program for the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, called SNAP a critical safety net for 40 million low-income workers and their children.
“Restricting SNAP access to families in need is a poor decision at any time, but it would be especially unwise in the midst of the COVID-19 public health crisis with its ripple effects on the economic wellbeing of so many of us,” Henly said in an email to Courthouse News Service.
Hawkins underscored the dangers of cutting the number of U.S. food stamp recipients during the pandemic as the economy grinds to a halt.
“Even if they are paid, they generally make minimum wage and food stamps operate as a way for them to survive, to make up the difference of their lack of a livable wage,” Hawkins said.
Federal courts are part of a nationwide system of government offices working to stay open through the outbreak, and the food-stamp case is just one of many issues left hanging in the balance. Just last month meanwhile the Senate Judiciary Committee said it will tackle the constitutionality of nationwide injunctions, such as the relief ordered Friday by Howell.
The judge was direct about why she felt the sweeping order necessary.
“Any recent chaos stemming from nationwide injunctions is the product of an executive branch aggressive in pursuit of appeals and in advancing its present arguments in derogation of judicial power,” Howell wrote.
“Perhaps that sort of power grab is to be expected from the executive branch,” the chief judge continued. “What is unexpected, and dangerous to the maintenance of our constitutional order, is that instead of fighting back, some courts have rolled over.”
The injunction against the Department of Agriculture is only temporary. As the case proceeds on the merits, Howell said it is already evident that the agency did not rely on careful consideration and rational justification before making the SNAP changes.
“USDA says it did all that here, but USDA is not the arbiter of the final rule’s legality,” she wrote. “The courts are, and this court has determined that aspects of the Final Rule are likely unlawful because they are arbitrary and capricious.”