New York Attorney General Letitia James and District of Columbia Attorney General, Karl Racine have taken the lead in filing a lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from eliminating food assistance for nearly 700,000 Americans, including Caribbean nationals.
The lawsuit, which was joined by 13 attorneys general and the City of New York, challenges a United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule that would limit states’ ability to extend benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” beyond a three-month period for certain adults.
The coalition asserts in the lawsuit, which was filed in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, that the rule directly undermines the US Congress’ intent for SNAP, and that the USDA violated the US federal rulemaking process.
Further, the petitioners argue that the rule would impose significant regulatory burdens on the states and harm states’ economies and residents.
The coalition is urging the court to declare the rule unlawful and issue an injunction to prevent it from taking effect on April 1, 2020.
“The federal government’s latest assault on vulnerable individuals is cruel to its core,” James said. “Denying access to vital SNAP benefits would only push hundreds of thousands of already vulnerable Americans into greater economic uncertainty.
“In so doing, states will have to grapple with rising healthcare and homelessness costs that will result from this shortsighted and ill-conceived policy,” she added.
James said this rule will deny access to food assistance for more than 50,000 people in New York City, including Caribbean immigrants, and put tens of thousands more throughout New York State at risk of going hungry.
The New York attorney general said SNAP has served as the country’s primary response to hunger since 1977 and has been a critical part of federal and state efforts to help lift people out of poverty.
She said the program provides access to food for millions of Americans with limited income, who would otherwise struggle with food insecurity.
“While the federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits, it shares the costs of administering the program on a 50-50 basis with the states, which operate the program,” James said.
She noted that the US Congress amended SNAP in 1996 with the goal of encouraging greater workforce participation among beneficiaries.
The changes introduced a three-month time limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed individuals aged 18 to 49 who are not disabled or raising children —”able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDs), James said.
She said the US Congress “understood that states were best positioned to assess whether local economic conditions and labor markets provided ABAWDs reasonable employment opportunities.”
As a result, James said the law allows a state to acquire a waiver of the ABAWD time limit for areas in which the unemployment rate is above 10 percent, or if it presents data demonstrating that the area lacks sufficient jobs for ABAWDs.
She said states were also given a limited number of one-month exemptions for individuals who would otherwise lose benefits under the time limit, and were permitted to carry over unused exemptions to safeguard against sudden economic downturns.
Over the last 24 years, James said the US Congress has maintained the criteria for states to obtain waivers and to carry over unused exemptions.
She said Congress has reauthorized the statute four times “without limiting the states’ discretion over these matters and overwhelmingly rejected attempts to add restrictions on waivers in the 2018 Farm Bill.”
Shortly after US President Donald J. Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, James said the USDA announced a proposed rule seeking changes almost identical to those Congress rejected.
She said the USDA received more than 100,000 comments in total—”the majority of which reflected strong opposition from a broad range of stakeholders.”
“Regardless, USDA’s final rule went even further in restricting state discretion over waivers and exemptions than what it had initially proposed,” James said.
In the lawsuit, the states collectively argue that the administration’s rule change “contradicts statutory language and Congress’s intent for the food-stamp program; raises healthcare and homelessness costs while lowering economic activity in the states; amends the law for arbitrary and capricious reasons; (and) violates the federal rulemaking process.”
James and Racine, who are co-leading the lawsuit, are joined by the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia, along with the City of New York.
The states filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction concurrently with the complaint to enjoin the rule from going into effect on April 1, 2020.