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Judge blocks Trump plan to cut food stamps for 700,000 adults

Concerns over food insecurity during pandemic
Concerns over food insecurity grow amid COVID-19 pandemic 05:29

A judge on Sunday struck down the Trump administration's efforts to make it more difficult for some adults to receive food stamps. In a 67-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell of D.C. condemned the administration for failing to consider how the rule would impact an estimated hundreds of thousands of Americans during the pandemic. 

The ruling comes after a year-long effort from the Trump administration to trim the number of people who rely on food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. When the Trump administration initially proposed its new rules for limiting access to the program, the U.S. was enjoying record low unemployment and a strong economy. 

But the coronavirus pandemic has upended the once-growing economy and pushed millions of Americans into joblessness. Almost 25 million adults are currently claiming unemployment benefits, and the jobless rate stood at 7.9% in September, more than double the 3.5% rate in February. Despite the rise in unemployment and hardship, the Trump administration had pressed forward in May with its efforts to trim the food stamp program.

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In her ruling, Howell said the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, had remained "icily silent" on how many people would have been impacted by the rule change "while the pandemic rapidly spread across the country." She added that enrollment in food stamps had surged by 17%, or almost 6 million additional recipients, through May. 

The rule was "a vivid illustration of this relentless ideology that's not informed by the economic realities of people, whether they are in the pandemic or not in the pandemic," said Stacy Dean, vice president for food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. "The judge called them out for trying to steamroll through policy with seemingly no effort to incorporate feedback" on concerns from states and other groups.

The USDA didn't return a request for comment.

Rising poverty rate

Howell also said the Trump administration had failed to justify the reasons for the rule change, which focuses on so-called "able-bodied adults without dependents" — or adults between ages 18 to 49 who don't have disabilities or dependents, such as children or adult family members with disabilities. These adults are limited to three months of food stamps within a three-year period unless they have a job or are enrolled in worker training programs, but states are able to waive these requirements. 

Under the new rule, states would have to prove counties had unemployment rates of at least 6% to waive the restriction. That would have bumped as many as 700,000 people off food stamps, although that's an estimate developed by the Urban Institute prior to the pandemic.

Dean said the rule most likely would have impacted far more than 700,000 adults given ongoing elevated joblessness. However, it's an impact that would be felt in months to come, since currently the three-month limit on adults without dependents to receive food stamps is on hold, thanks to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. That suspension will expire when the public health emergency is ended.

The rule "radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving States scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans," Howell wrote. 

She added, "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. For now, the agency has not done so." 

The poverty rate is now higher than it was before the pandemic,  according to Columbia University researchers. More than 22 million adults said their households sometimes or often didn't have enough to eat at the end of September, according to recent Census data.

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