by Scott McClallen
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Sunday blocked a Trump administration change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) that could have removed eligibility for almost 700,000 unemployed, able-bodied Americans.
A lawsuit filed in January by a multistate coalition alleged a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule wrongly reversed a decades-old policy that allowed states to waive SNAP work requirements. The previous rules granted waivers for larger geographic areas by lumping certain regions with lower unemployment with locations registering higher unemployment, as well as carryover unused exemptions.
To increase workforce participation, Congress in 1996 amended SNAP benefits to limit disbursements to “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents” (ABAWD), defined as unemployed individuals ages 18-49 who are not disabled or raising minors. SNAP funds were restricted to three months within three years unless subjects are employed for a minimum of 20 hours per week.
But the law granted states the ability to request waivers for that time limit if the state or part of the state had an unemployment rate above 10%, or did not have a sufficient number of jobs to employ SNAP recipients.
The new rule attempted to revise state discretion for waivers due to economic conditions, define geographic scope waivers, and require the state to rely on the entire population’s unemployment instead of employment for ABAWD.
Critics of the geographic waiver requirements point out that past regulations required the USDA to average different regional unemployment rates so more people receive the waiver, even in regions that are below the unemployment benchmark.
“Geographic-area waivers of work requirements for people who receive food stamps are based on the flawed premise that when the unemployment rate in a given area exceeds a certain level, even in a national economic boom, able-bodied people in that area should not be expected to look for work, whether in that area or in a neighboring city or county,” Jamie Hall, a senior policy analyst in empirical studies at The Heritage Foundation, said.
Hall said that ABAWD work requirement exemptions by geographic waivers account for about double the SNAP caseload expected.
“Geographic waivers are not needed to protect vulnerable citizens’ access to food. Other provisions exist or are available to give states the flexibility they need to provide exemptions from the work requirement for people facing difficulties,” Hall said.
Chief Judge Beryl Howell noted “the backdrop of the pandemic has provided, in stark relief, [the] procedural and substantive flaws” of the rule change.
Within two months of the start of the pandemic, more than 6 million Americans enrolled in SNAP.
The court observed USDA was “silent” on how many of enrollees wouldn’t be eligible for SNAP benefits as a result of USDA’s proposal.
The Administrative Procedure Act requires agencies to offer explanations for changing long-held policies, but the court found the waiver changes were “arbitrary and capricious.”
“SNAP was specifically created to help Americans struggling with food insecurity and as we continue to navigate this pandemic, this assistance is more important than ever,” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement.
“Instead of helping Americans at a time when so many are facing hardships, the Trump administration chose to cruelly revoke vital food assistance that thousands of Michigan residents rely on. This is an important victory in favor of human decency.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, Michigan’s SNAP rolls surged $126 million from February to May.
The federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits but splits administration costs evenly with the states.
The court ruled that USDA’s change violated the federal rulemaking process, and vacated the rule in its entirety.
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Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.