Senior Policy Analyst
Sunday’s federal court decision striking down a Trump Administration rule that would have eliminated SNAP (food stamps) for 700,000 low-income jobless workers means that the punitive, ill-conceived rule — already temporarily suspended due to the pandemic — can’t take effect even when the public health emergency ends.
Cutting people off SNAP would have been especially harsh and short-sighted during the pandemic, given high unemployment and widespread food insecurity. As the court noted, “Despite the [Agriculture Department’s] blinkered effort to downplay or disregard the predicted outcomes of the Final Rule, the backdrop of the pandemic has provided, in stark relief, its procedural and substantive flaws.” The Administration has been “icily silent” about how many people would have lost benefits if the rule were in effect during the pandemic, the court wrote.
But the rule would have been flawed even without the pandemic. Along with faulting the Administration for not following its own rulemaking process, the court dismissed Administration claims that before the pandemic, too many unemployed adults were getting SNAP under long-standing policy.
At issue is a decades-old law limiting adults who aren’t raising minor children in their home to only three months of SNAP benefits when they aren’t working or in a training program for at least 20 hours per week. The law includes a safety valve for areas where there simply aren’t enough jobs for this population: states can request waivers of the three-month limit so people looking for stable work can continue to eat. Virtually every state has used this flexibility at some point.
The Trump Administration sought to drastically reduce state flexibility beyond what the law allows, without providing any data or explanation for why that’s necessary.
The 700,000 or more unemployed and underemployed workers who were at risk are among the poorest participants in SNAP, with incomes averaging only $187 per month. The Administration claimed that taking away their food assistance would spur them to find jobs, but the evidence didn’t support this rhetoric before the pandemic and certainly doesn’t support it now.
As we’ve explained, most SNAP participants, including those subject to the three-month limit, work when they can and rely on SNAP during periods of unemployment or to supplement low wages. The massive job losses over the last seven months have disproportionately harmed low-wage workers, who already face greater barriers to work than the average job seeker, such as less education and lack of transportation.
The court’s decision reflects concerns that over 100,000 community groups, local leaders, and individuals raised in public comments on the rule since the Administration proposed it over a year ago. Events since then have shown how essential SNAP is in ensuring access to food for those who can’t find work.