© Scott Heins/Getty ImagesA sign alerting customers about SNAP food stamps benefits is displayed at a Brooklyn grocery store on December 5, 2019 in New York City.
A federal judge Sunday struck down a Trump administration rule that could have stripped food stamps from nearly 700,000 people, saying the US Department of Agriculture has been "icily silent" about how many Americans would have been denied benefits had the changes been in effect during the pandemic.
"The final rule at issue in this litigation radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving states scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans," Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the US District Court in Washington, DC, wrote in a 67-page ruling, saying the agency has not adequately explained how the rule comports with federal statutes nor how it "makes sense."
A coalition of attorneys general from 19 states, the District of Columbia and the City of New York filed a lawsuit in January, challenging the USDA rule.
The rule, announced in December, would have required more food stamp recipients to work in order to receive benefits by limiting states' ability to waive existing work mandates. It had been scheduled to take effect on April 1, but Howell in mid-March blocked it from being implemented, and Congress suspended work mandates in the food stamp program as part of a coronavirus relief package that month.
The requirement could have resulted in 688,000 non-disabled, working-age adults without dependents losing their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP, as food stamps are formally known, according to Agriculture Department estimates, which were calculated prior to the pandemic. It was expected to save $5.5 billion over five years.
Food stamp enrollment has soared during the outbreak as millions of Americans lost their jobs. More than 6 million people have signed up for benefits, as of May, a 17% increase, according to the ruling.
Nearly 43 million Americans were receiving benefits in April, according to the latest Agriculture Department data.
Hunger has risen amid the economic upheaval wrought by the pandemic. Many lined up at food banks, which distributed more than 1.9 billion meals between March and June, according to Feeding America, a network of 200 food banks and 60,000 food pantries and meal programs.
Some 10% of adults live in households where there was either sometimes or often not enough to eat in the last seven days, according to a Census Bureau survey from mid- to late-September.
In normal times, the food stamp program requires non-disabled, working-age adults without dependents to have jobs. They can only receive benefits for three months out of every 36-month period unless they are working or participating in training programs 20 hours a week. There were 2.9 million of these recipients in 2018 and nearly 74% of them were not employed, according to the agency.
The Agriculture Department did not immediately return a request seeking comment.
States can waive the work requirement for areas where unemployment is at least 10% or there is an insufficient number of jobs, as defined by the Department of Labor. The new rule would have made it harder for states to receive those waivers by tightening the definition of areas where there are insufficient jobs, narrowing the geographic areas of waivers and limiting their duration, among other provisions.
The move is one of three Trump administration efforts to overhaul the food stamp program.
Another proposed regulation, which would tighten the rules governing who qualifies for aid, could end up stripping more than 3 million people of their benefits and leave nearly 500,000 children without access to free school meals. The third proposal would change how allowances for utility expenses are calculated, which would have a mixed impact. The agency is still working on the latter two proposals.