The U.S. Department of Agriculture on March 24 said it is withdrawing a Trump administration appeal of a federal court ruling that had blocked the planned restrictions on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as food stamps. Trump officials, two months after the had shuttered the economy and caused millions of people to lose their jobs.
Hunger and food insecurity around the U.S. have surged during the pandemic, with 41.4 million people enrolled in SNAP as of November, up 13% from February 2020 before the public health crisis, according to the latest data available from the USDA. Despite that increase, the Trump administration had told CBS MoneyWatch last year that it believed imposing tighter restrictions on food stamps was “the right approach.”
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the rule would have hurt some of the most at-risk adults during the ongoing crisis, such as rural Americans, people of color and those with less than a high school degree, who typically have a tougher time finding employment.
“The rule would have penalized individuals who were unable to find consistent income, when many low wage jobs have variable hours, and limited to no sick leave,” Vilsack said in a statement.
The restrictions on food stamps were pursued by former USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue, who had said that SNAP should provide “assistance through difficult times, not a way of life.”
But the Trump administration cuts were blocked by a federal court last March as the coronavirus was erupting around the U.S., with a judge calling the effort “likely unlawful.” The judge also noted that food benefits are critical given that “a global pandemic poses widespread health risks.”
The USDA rule focuses on so-called “able-bodied adults without dependents,” or adults who are 18- to 49-years-old and who don’t have disabilities or dependents, such as children or adult family members with disabilities. Unless they have a job or are enrolled in worker training programs, these adults are limited to three months of food stamps within a three-year period, although states can request waivers to that policy.
The Trump administration had sought to make it harder for states to get a waiver, which could have deprived hundreds of thousands of jobless adults of food aid, according to the Urban Institute, which issued that estimate prior to the pandemic. Given the higher rates of unemployment and hunger since then, the rule could have knocked even more people off the program.
“The three-month cutoff penalizes workers for deep flaws in the labor market that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and greatly worsened,” said Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, in a blog post about the decision to abandon the appeal. “Taking away food benefits doesn’t make it easier for anyone to find a stable job; it just makes people hungrier.”
The Biden administration’s decision is “great news,” he added.
SNAP enrollment typically moves in hand-in-hand with the economy, with enrollment increasing when the jobless rate jumps and receding when the labor market rebounds. About 9% of U.S. households, or about 23 million households, sometimes or often didn’t have enough to eat in the prior week, according to a Census household survey from March 3 to March 15. Before the pandemic, about 8% of households reported they sometimes or often didn’t have enough food.