By Benjamin Kail | March 16, 2020
Citing the COVID-19 pandemic impacting the nation, a federal judge recently blocked a Trump administration rule that could have eliminated food stamps benefits for thousands of Massachusetts residents.
The Trump administration rule would have implemented tighter work requirements for eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, potentially impacting 700,000 people across the country and more than 10,000 in Massachusetts. About one in nine people in the commonwealth benefit from SNAP, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Workers who receive SNAP benefits currently must work at least 20 hours a week for more than three months over a period of three years. But states often waive that requirement, which helps workers in high unemployment areas.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new rule restricts those waivers to areas with more than double the unemployment rates of Massachusetts. The rule would have gone into effect in April and impacted people between the ages of 18 and 49 who are childless and not disabled.
Democratic attorney generals from 19 states including Massachusetts, who sued the federal government over the proposal, received a win Friday when Washington, D.C. District Court Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell granted a preliminary injunction, blocking the new rules from going into effect while the court case continues.
“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 in a memorandum opinion.
Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey called the judge’s memorandum “a huge win for more than 16,000 people in Massachusetts who rely on SNAP benefits. This program provides basic food assistance for Americans and we will fight to protect it from the Trump administration’s inhumane actions.”
The USDA has estimated that the moves, along with other proposed changes that would limit SNAP benefits, could save the federal government almost $5 billion over the next five years.
Sonny Perdue, the Secretary of Agriculture, wrote in a USA Today editorial in December 2018 that with the economy growing and unemployment rates plummeting, more able-bodied people should be entering the labor force.
“Instead, because of a permissive regulation that allows states to grant waivers to wide swaths of their populations, millions of people who could work are continuing to receive SNAP benefits,” he wrote.” The rule changes, he said, restore “the dignity of work to a sizable segment of our population, while it is also respectful of the taxpayers who fund the program.”
Perdue last week declined to postpone implementing the rule, HuffPost reported. He noted that states could waive limits on benefits for “good cause,” including an inability to work due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“Obviously if your job says you can’t come to work or you’re sick in that way, that good cause would eliminate need for work requirements under this rule,” Perdue said. “That will be under the discretion of the states to determine that good cause.”
But Democrats roundly celebrated Howell’s injunction.
“It is absolutely unconscionable that as the CDC is calling on people to stay home, and avoid interactions that could spread the coronavirus further, but the Trump Administration is refusing to withdraw their cruel rule that will force workers to maintain work hours that could place their health and well-being at risk,” U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern said in a statement Monday morning. “In the increasingly likely event that more workplaces and schools close, folks who can’t work or train for work won’t be able to meet minimum requirements, and could lose the very benefits their families need during a pandemic.”
McGovern added that the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which the House passed Friday and which Trump supports, temporarily waives the USDA work requirements irrespective of the court’s ruling.
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