BUSINESS
03/13/2020 21:13 EDT | Updated 03/16/2020 08:24 EDT

Citing Coronavirus, Court Blocks Trump's First Food Benefit Cut

A federal judge said this is no time to start kicking thousands of people off benefits.

Citing the global coronavirus pandemic, a federal judge has blocked a food benefit cut that would have taken effect next month and denied benefits to thousands.

The Trump administration wanted to limit benefits for unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents, but D.C. District Court Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell granted a preliminary injunction on Friday sought by Democratic attorneys general. 

“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 wrote in her memorandum opinion, which will stop the new rule from taking effect while the case moves through the courts.

Some 700,000 Americans could be denied Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits annually if the cut takes effect, according to the Trump administration. That’s roughly 2% of the SNAP program’s overall enrollment. 

Democrats have repeatedly asked the Trump administration to postpone the rule in light of the coronavirus outbreak, but Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue has said no

New York Attorney General Letitia James and Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine spearheaded the Democratic lawsuit against the rule.

“This rule would accomplish just the opposite, making those who already worry about ending their days hungry even more vulnerable, and as we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic, the effects of this rule would be more destructive than ever,” James said in a statement.

The stalled food benefit cut is just one of a plethora of Trump initiatives to stymie enrollment in social programs that help people survive with limited labor market income. It’s the first of three major SNAP cuts; two others are still pending.

The policy would have targeted non-elderly adults without children or disabilities, who comprise about 7% of the 35 million Americans who receive SNAP benefits each month. The USDA claimed states were improperly waiving so-called “work requirements” that limit benefits to able-bodied adults to just three months. The regulation would have limited state waiver authority to times when the state unemployment rate is higher than 6%. 

Howell said the USDA had violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to heed opposition to the rule lodged through a formal regulatory comment process. 

“Although the hundreds of thousands of low-income individuals who stand to lose their benefits had little direct voice in that rulemaking process, the process exists to protect them and ensure that the agency cannot terminate their benefits arbitrarily,” Howell wrote. 

Howell also called the administration’s argument against a nationwide injunction “off-the-wall,” saying it was an appropriate remedy. 

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