WASHINGTON (CN) — Experts called it critical Monday that a federal judge has blocked the Trump administration from leaving nearly 700,000 people without food stamps at a time of rising food insecurity with millions of Americans out of work during the coronavirus pandemic.
Ruling against the Department of Agriculture at summary judgment Sunday, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell found that the rule it adopted late last year “radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice” for administering food stamps through SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Howell slammed the agency as “icily silent” on how its proposal would affect more than 1 million people who receive SNAP benefits during a pandemic that so far has killed nearly 220,00 Americans and quadrupled the national unemployment rate.
Food insecurity is on the rise, meanwhile, and still climbing.
“The main frontline of defense that we have is SNAP,” Elaine Waxman, a senior fellow in the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center, told Courthouse News on Monday.
After the Great Recession, it took 10 years for the food-insecurity rate to get back to levels seen before the 2008 economic crash, she added.
“We don’t know exactly what this recovery will look like. But we know from prior experience that it takes a long time for people to dig out,” Waxman said.
Julia Henly, who chairs the doctoral program for the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration, agreed that SNAP is proven to reduce food insecurity and is a critical economic support to low-income families.
“This is a time to simplify SNAP access, not make the eligibility process more difficult,” Henly said in an email Monday.
States historically have had the power to waive the work mandates that food-stamp beneficiaries face. Without court intervention, the Trump administration would have made such waivers harder to implement. In a thriving economy, noted Henly, such a move makes little sense.
“But it would be especially poor public policy to reinstate work mandates at a time when over 12 million Americans are unemployed and community food banks are stretched to the limit. This is precisely the time when SNAP benefits are most critical, without making their access conditional on work,” she said.
Economist Robert Hartley likewise called the rule a “strange juxtaposition” to the efforts of Congress, which through the CARES Act has suspended time limits on work requirements for so-called "able-bodied adults without dependents" who are eligible for relief under SNAP.
An estimated 700,000 such adults could have found themselves kicked off food stamps this year if the Trump administration’s rule had held up in court.
SNAP is “perhaps the most accessible and successful support” for American families facing economic hardship, a safety net made all the more valuable during the pandemic, Hartley said in an email.
“Restricting access as proposed would offer small savings in relative terms to government spending, but the personal hardship that would result is significant, especially since individuals’ constraints and health challenges may be difficult to observe as we label who is able-bodied,” said Hartley, who is an assistant professor of social work at Columbia University.
Judge Howell, an Obama appointee, had temporarily blocked the rule set to impose new eligibility requirements from taking effect on April 1, calling SNAP essential. In her 67-page ruling Sunday, Howell wrote that USDA had failed to explain how the changes followed the federal rulemaking process or “make sense.”
Just over the last six months, Howell added, “SNAP rosters have grown by over 17 percent with over 6 million new enrollees.”
While the rule change attempted by the Trump administration had targeted adults without dependents, Waxman noted that many food stamp recipients are noncustodial parents. Even if their children live with another parent, such individuals can still bear financial or caretaking responsibilities.
Waxman called SNAP a critical stimulus program that should not be pared back amid a deadly outbreak whose economic toll remains untold, pointing to research that shows every dollar spent in the program returns anywhere from $1.50 to $1.80 back to the recipient’s community.
“This is a program that helps fuel recoveries,” Waxman said. “It’s just a relief that this is one fewer battle that'll have to be fought right now.”
The lawsuit was brought in January by attorneys general from 19 states as well as the District of Columbia and New York City.
“At a time of national crisis, this decision is a win for common sense and basic human decency,” New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a press release Monday. “This Trump administration rule was cruel to its core and ran counter to who we are and what we represent as a nation.”
Hartley noted Monday that New York was the first state to pilot a SNAP Online Purchasing program in 2019 that has rapidly expanded to 47 states since May.
Without SNAP, he added, the country would see “large increases in food insecurity, especially unprecedented spikes in child food insecurity, or else extreme lines at food banks or other distribution centers.”
D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine over Twitter Monday called the proposed rule change “heartless and unlawful,” saying it put the lives of the 700,000 Americans who may have lost SNAP benefits at risk.