WASHINGTON ― The first of the Trump administration’s three major cutbacks to federal food benefits will go into effect next April, unless a judge blocks it.
Democrats in Congress and in state governments, as well as advocates for poor people, have all vowed to take legal action against the cuts. Attorneys general in Massachusetts and Connecticut have hinted at lawsuits, and the Los Angeles County board of supervisors voted this week to sue, though it’s up to the county’s lawyers to figure out how.
The Western Center on Law and Poverty is also considering bringing suit on behalf of one of the thousands of program enrollees in California who could lose benefits under the rule change. The organization has won previous lawsuits against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
House Democrats are still debating whether to file their own lawsuit or join another.
“We’re looking at the different options,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), the chairman of the House Rules Committee, told HuffPost.
The Trump administration sidestepped Congress in making this cut, simply issuing new regulations. The lawsuits will likely claim the administration broke federal law in doing so, and they may have a chance of success. In October, a federal judge ruled that the Trump administration acted arbitrarily and without proper input from Congress when she and two other judges blocked recent changes to immigration standards.
The food benefits rule finalized last week reduces states’ authority to set their own eligibility standards for the subset of SNAP beneficiaries who don’t have children and aren’t disabled.
“It’s pretty clear that the president acted outside of his authority,” said Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
Whoever sues, they’ll want a federal judge to issue an injunction blocking the new policy before it takes effect in April. This is the first of three cuts the administration has written into regulations. None has taken effect yet, and the other two, which would impact many more people, haven’t been scheduled. Altogether the changes would cut SNAP enrollment by about 10%.
The USDA announced that it would pursue the now-looming benefit cut last December on the same day that Trump signed a bill reauthorizing nutrition assistance, which is one of the federal government’s largest anti-poverty programs.
More than 36 million Americans receive monthly food benefits through electronic benefit transfer cards that can be used to buy food in stores. The upcoming cut targets the 7% of recipients who aren’t caring for children or other adults, who aren’t senior citizens and who don’t have disabilities. They will be required to document 20 hours of “work activities” per week or else lose benefits after three months.
After their three months of benefits have run out, able-bodied adults can’t sign up again for three years.
During the debate over the reauthorization of food assistance, House Republicans, egged on by the conservative Freedom Caucus, pushed for a variety of benefit cuts. Senate Republicans wouldn’t go along, citing Democrats’ ability to filibuster, and the final bill left out the harshest changes. But it didn’t matter, because the Trump administration picked up the discarded proposals and wrote them into regulations anyway.
Since the 1990s, states have been able to waive work requirements for food benefits in areas with above-average unemployment rates, and in recent years most states have done so. A key part of the new rule will allow such waivers only if local unemployment rates exceed 6%, because Republicans don’t think there are any excuses for able-bodied adults not to work with the national unemployment rate at 3.5%.
“Now, in the midst of the strongest economy in a generation, we need everyone who can work to work,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said when he announced the finalized regulation last week.
“There’s nothing that suggests the goal here is to actually get people jobs.”
But even if they don’t meet the government’s definition of “disabled” or caring for “dependents,” some program beneficiaries may have health problems or family obligations that make it difficult for them to hold steady jobs. And the USDA knows it: The department said it expected that two-thirds of the 1 million people ultimately subject to the new requirements will be unable to meet them.
What happens to people who lose their benefits? Well, since the new regulation would essentially expand a policy that has already been in effect in some states, we have some idea.
A study from the USDA’s own Economic Research Service, published in 2002, found shockingly high rates of poverty and higher rates of food insecurity among able-bodied adults who’d been kicked out of the food stamp program, as it was then known, after getting their three months’ worth. Another study, from 2011, found that people who recently stopped receiving nutrition assistance had more “unmet food needs” than people who remain enrolled.
“The one thing we know is that if you take away food assistance from unemployed folks, they are hungrier, they are poorer, and they still have all the challenges they had before,” said Ed Bolen, a nutrition assistance expert with the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “There’s nothing that suggests the goal here is to actually get people jobs.”
In its explanation of the rule published in the Federal Register, the USDA acknowledged the research, which several groups had cited in comments on the proposal, and didn’t disagree with it. The department nevertheless pointed to Congress’ intent when lawmakers first established the work requirement back in 1996.
The USDA stated that it “believes that those who can work should work and that SNAP recipients should be expected to seek work whenever possible.”
Democrats hate how the Trump administration went around Congress, and they hate the policy itself.
“It’s the holidays,” McGovern said. “I mean this is a time where we’re supposed to be joyous and supposed to be compassionate and for anybody to propose a rule ... Let me put this way: There’s a special place in hell for anybody who proposes a rule to actually take food away from hungry people.”