Senior Policy Analyst
The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will hear arguments tomorrow on a lawsuit to stop a new Trump Administration rule that would eliminate food assistance for nearly 700,000 low-income adults, according to the Administration’s own estimate.
Under current law, adults not raising minor children in their homes can only get SNAP (food stamp) benefits for three months out of every three years when they aren’t working or in a training program for at least 20 hours per week. But states can request waivers of this time limit in areas where there aren’t enough jobs for this population so that people looking for stable work can continue to eat — and virtually every state has used this flexibility at some point. The new rule, due to take effect April 1, severely restricts this state option.
Fifteen states and New York City have sued to block the rule, along with local Washington, D.C. organizations on behalf of people likely to lose food assistance, claiming the rule restricts state flexibility beyond what the law allows. Because the rule would cause both severe and widespread harm, the plaintiffs are asking the court to stop it from taking effect until after the court makes a final decision on the case. If the request is granted, the existing rules and procedures remain in place.
The Administration claims that taking food assistance away from very poor unemployed and under-employed individuals will spur them to find and keep jobs, but the evidence doesn’t support this rhetoric. 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.
Moreover, most economists disagree with the assumption that SNAP benefits — which average about $1.40 per person per meal — keep people from looking for a job. Recently, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell dismissed the suggestion that “the richness of our social programs” makes people less inclined to look for work. “It isn’t better or more comfortable to be poor and on public benefits now, it’s actually worse than it was,” Powell said.
That’s especially true for the unemployed and under-employed workers who risk losing benefits under this rule. They are among the poorest of the program’s participants, with incomes averaging only $187 per month; their SNAP benefits average about $165 per month. They face greater barriers to work than the average job seeker, such as less education and lack of transportation. People of color are especially likely to lose benefits, given their much higher unemployment rates and continued racial discrimination in labor markets.
While the Administration touts the current low unemployment as a reason to implement the rule now, the new policy also would dramatically limit SNAP’s ability to respond to a worsening economy in the future. It eliminates the most common way that states can suspend the time limit when unemployment is rising — namely, the provision allowing states that qualify for extended unemployment benefits to waive the time limit. This restriction wasn’t even in the proposed rule that the Agriculture Department issued in 2018 for public comment, so states and the public had no opportunity to raise concerns about limiting SNAP’s responsiveness to recessions so drastically. This failure to allow for comment violated the federal rulemaking process, the state lawsuit charges.
If the rule takes effect April 1, close to 700,000 individuals could lose food assistance by July, so state SNAP agencies, food pantries, and soup kitchens across the country are scrambling to prepare to meet increased need. The court can avert such a dire outcome.