Federal judge strikes down USDA rule to impose stricter SNAP work requirements

By Helena Bottemiller Evich 10/19/2020 12:05 PM EDT

A federal judge struck down a controversial Trump administration rule that would have mandated tougher work requirements on millions of able-bodied adults without dependents who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. The effort was part of President Donald Trump’s broader bid to shrink safety net programs.

The ruling issued by U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell on Sunday offered a blistering condemnation of the Agriculture Department’s rule, which was originally supposed to take effect in April before a preliminary injunction was issued in March as coronavirus took hold in the United States.

Howell concluded USDA’s rule “radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving States scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans.”

“Whether USDA could, using a legally proper process, adequately explain how the Final Rule’s changes both comport with the statutory scheme and make sense is a question for another day,” she wrote. “For now, the agency has not done so.”

The impact: If implemented, USDA’s rule would have dropped some 700,000 people from the program, per the department’s own pre-pandemic estimates.

Howell chided the department for being “icily silent” about how many able-bodied adults without dependents, known as ABAWDs, would have lost SNAP benefits under the proposal during the current crisis if Congress had not mandated that existing work requirements be suspended during the public health emergency.

She noted that as of May SNAP participation had grown by more than 17 percent.

The background: A broad coalition, including 19 states, the District of Columbia and the City of New York, filed a lawsuit challenging USDA’s rule in January, along with another challenge from Washington, D. C. anti-hunger group Bread for the City The two lawsuits were consolidated. While not every state joined in challenging the policy, the ruling vacates the rule at the federal level.

The political context: Democrats have long blasted USDA’s attempts to make it harder for some to access SNAP benefits — a fight that’s taken on even more intensity as millions of Americans are newly out of work during the pandemic.

The question of whether to impose stricter work requirements on ABAWDs was the central fight of the last farm bill, but Republicans were unsuccessful in getting the policy in the final package.

“Thank you Judge Howell!” tweeted Senate Agriculture ranking member Debbie Stabenow. “Americans need more help with food for their families during this pandemic — not less! #BoostSNAPNow”

Anti-hunger advocates also cheered the decision. “It is an important ruling,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research & Action Center. “There was a lot at stake even before the pandemic.”

What’s next: USDA can appeal the ruling. The department did not immediately respond to questions or a request for comment.

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