Judge shuts down “arbitrary and capricious” Trump plan to cut food aid for up to 700K amid pandemic

The administration "radically and abruptly" upended rule process and risked worsening food insecurity, a judge says

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published October 19, 2020 1:34PM (EDT)

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue looks on during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the press briefing room of the White House. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue looks on during a briefing on the coronavirus pandemic in the press briefing room of the White House. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A federal judge slammed the Trump administration's "arbitrary and capricious" plan to cut food stamp benefits for up to 700,000 unemployed Americans amid the coronavirus pandemic as she blocked the effort on Sunday in response to a lawsuit from 20 attorneys general.

Chief D.C. District Judge Beryl Howell said the Agriculture Department (USDA) had failed to justify the rule change or even respond to questions about how many people would lose benefits.

Howell wrote that the rule "at issue in this litigation radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving states scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans," according to The Washington Post.

She added that the USDA had been "icily silent about how many [adults] would have been denied SNAP benefits had the changes sought . . . been in effect while the pandemic rapidly spread across the country."

The Agriculture Department announced the new rule, would have revoked states' ability to waive work requirements for food stamp recipients, in 2018. Analysts estimated that the rule change could cost some 700,000 people access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits prior to the pandemic. Since the pandemic hit, the number of individuals receiving SNAP benefits has grown more than 17%.

A coalition of 19 states and Washington D.C. sued to block the rule. Howell had previously temporarily blocked the rule in March on the same day that President Donald Trump announced a national emergency in response to the pandemic.

"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 said at the time, adding that parts of the rule were "likely unlawful, because they are arbitrary and capricious."

The Trump administration appealed the ruling in spite of the rise in SNAP recipients sparked by the health crisis. Sunday's opinion will prevent the rule from going into effect once the national emergency ends.

New York Attorney General Letitia James told The Post the ruling was a "win for common sense and basic human decency," because it blocked a rule that "would have not only made it harder for thousands to feed their families and risk them going hungry, but would have exacerbated the public health crisis we face and the economic recession we are still in the midst of under President Trump."

Current rules require non-disabled, working-age adults without children to work at least 80 hours a month in order to receive sustained aid, but states can waive the requirement. The proposed USDA rule would have limited the criteria that states can use to waive the requirement, only allowing waivers if the national unemployment rate is at least 6%.

Secretary Sonny Perdue said at the time of the announcement that the change was intended to "restore the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population and be respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program."

The administration's appeal came as the number of unemployed Americans quadrupled during the coronavirus lockdowns. Food banks served nearly 2 billion meals between March and June, and about 10% of adults lived in households who reported not having enough food to eat last month.

With Republicans in Congress pushing back against any large-scale coronavirus relief bill, about 8 million people have fallen into poverty as unemployment benefits expired and money from the spring's stimulus payments quickly dried up, according to a Columbia University study.

Though Howell blocked the work requirement rule, the Trump administration has continued to push two additional rule changes that would cap deductions on housing and utility costs when a person applies for food aid and limit access to SNAP for poor working families in 40 states.

If those changes had been enacted last year, about 3.7 million people would have lost their SNAP benefits, according to a study from the Urban Institute. The changes are also expected to slash the amount of food aid for millions of other recipients. Nearly 1 million students would lose automatic access to free or reduced-price school lunch.

A coalition of 70 mayors denounced the proposed rules, warning that the cuts would "harm local and regional economies."

"Executive actions should not be used to hurt individuals, families and communities," they said. "Our nation cannot remain globally competitive if our children do not have enough to eat."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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