Court cites coronavirus in blocking Trump administration's food stamp cuts

Judge Beryl A. Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia cited the coronavirus pandemic in her decision to suspend the rule from going into effect.

Food stamps beneficiaries do their grocery shopping at Agranel Supermarket in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, in 2019.Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo / The Washington Post via Getty Images

A federal court blocked the Trump administration's rule that would have forced 700,000 low-income Americans to lose access to the Supplemental Nutrition Access Program, known as SNAP or food stamps, on April 1.

Judge Beryl A. Howell, the chief of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, cited the coronavirus pandemic in her decision to suspend the rule from going into effect.

"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.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture rule change affects people between the ages of 18 and 49 who are childless and not disabled. Under current rules, this group is required to work at least 20 hours a week for more than three months over a 36-month period to qualify for food stamps, but states have been able to create waivers for areas that face high unemployment.

This new work requirement rule would save the government $5.5 billion over five years, the USDA said.

"USDA disagrees with the court’s reasoning and will appeal its decision," an agency spokesperson said.

Nineteen states, the District of Columbia, New York City, and three other private groups filed the case earlier this year to block the rule that would limit states from waiving those standards, instead restricting their use to those areas that have a 6 percent unemployment rate or higher.

“At a time of national crisis, this decision is a win for common sense and basic human decency,” New York Attorney General Letitia Jamessaid in a statement. “This rule is cruel to its core and runs counter to who we are and what we represent as a nation."

James and the other states argued that the rule would not encourage work among low-income people.

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

Meanwhile, a House bill addressing the coronavirus that the president has indicated he will sign would strengthen SNAP and other food security initiatives.

While the court expressed concerns about impacts amid the pandemic, the measure also received more than 100,000 negative responses when it was opened to public comment, Howell wrote.

The court, she said, had "determined that aspects of the Final Rule are likely unlawful because they are arbitrary and capricious." Citing the Administrative Procedure Act, her opinion says that "unless the agency has considered the relevant evidence, has weighed the consequences of its actions, and has rationally justified its choices," the rule is unlawful.

Aspects of the USDA's rule did not pass that legal hurdle, she wrote, and the agency's argument that a temporary injunction would be an abuse of power seemed only an attempt to limit the judicial branch's authority.

"The agency’s objection to the issuance of a nationwide preliminary injunction should be seen for what it is: a bold and bald-faced effort to restrict the exercise of Article III judicial power to aggrandize that of the executive branch," Howell wrote. "This Court declines the invitation."

This is the first of three rule changes aimed to augment the SNAP program proposed by the Trump administration that could cause millions to lose access to food stamps.

The two others would “reform” the way 40 states automatically enroll families into SNAP when they receive other forms of federal aid and cap deductions made for housing and utility costs, which are considered when a person applies for food stamps.