A Biden Administration Could Unilaterally Undo A Bunch Of Safety Net Cuts

Trump pursued a series of disability and food benefit cuts without congressional input. Biden could stop them the same way.

With a lead in key states as of Friday morning, it looks like Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden might be heading to the White House, but Republicans might retain control of the Senate ― which would make it impossible for Democrats to pass ambitious legislation.

There are some big things a President Biden could do on his own, however, such as reversing a series of cuts to food and disability benefits that President Donald Trump’s administration has been trying to enact through regulations.

“If we have a Biden administration, I’m very excited to go back and look at things the Trump administration did, or proposed, and have a chance to revise a lot of that,” said Bethany Lilly, director of income policy at The Arc, a community organization that advocates for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Trump’s Social Security Administration has proposed more frequent reviews of whether Social Security disability recipients are still disabled after they’ve already been approved for benefits, as well as overhauling the eligibility process to make it more difficult to qualify for benefits if an applicant can sit at a desk part time. Neither rule has been finalized.

“If a new administration comes in and it hasn’t been finalized, they can effectively just put a stop to it,” Lilly said. “I would expect the Biden administration to do so.”

Another rule, one that the Trump administration did finalize earlier this year, said a claimant’s inability to speak English is no longer a factor in whether the government awards benefits or decides they could get some sort of low-wage job in spite of their age and health problems. Undoing that rule would likely require another regulation, which can take a long time but is a process that the administration controls.

The administration has also unilaterally said states could impose limits on health benefits for the unemployed, changed immigration rules to disallow green cards to immigrants who use safety net programs, and suggested it would alter the annual calculation of poverty thresholds so that fewer people would be eligible for various benefits over time.

Some of Trump’s most notable proposed regulations:

Most notably, several regulations sought to trim enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often known as food stamps.

Normally legislation sets eligibility rules for food benefits, but Republicans couldn’t get their cuts through Congress in 2018, so the administration lifted ideas directly from a bill that GOP lawmakers were unable to push through the Senate.

The three proposed regulations from Trump’s Department of Agriculture would tighten eligibility standards for SNAP, which provides a monthly food allowance to tens of millions of low-income Americans. One of the proposals, which would have disallowed states from waiving a three-month time limit on benefits to unemployed adults, was set to take effect when a federal judge put a stop to it in March.

“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,” Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell in Washington, D.C., said in a preliminary injunction that she affirmed last month.

Judge Howell said the administration had violated the Administrative Procedure Act, the law that sets out the rule-making process, partly because the administration failed to reckon with the overwhelmingly negative feedback outside experts heaped on a draft version of the rule. Several of the other proposed regulations have also been panned by stakeholders. Last week, a different federal judge cited the Administrative Procedure Act in rejecting Trump’s changes to the so-called “public charge” rule, which allowed immigration officials to deny residency to people who receive public benefits.

Two other bigger SNAP cuts, including one that would have cut enrollment by 3 million, haven’t been finalized. And they won’t be, at least not if Biden takes office and doesn’t want them to.

Ed Bolen, a nutrition assistance expert with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said a change in administration all by itself would take pressure off state officials to prod people off benefits, and make immigrants less afraid to apply for benefits in the first place. Experts say the mere threat of deportation caused eligible immigrants to shy away from asking for help.

“The administration could set a new tone about eligible immigrants being welcomed if they need help,” Bolen said.

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