WASHINGTON, D.C. – Attorney General Karl A. Racine today announced that the United States District Court for the District of Columbia has permanently blocked an effort by the Trump administration to revoke vital Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility for over 700,000 unemployed Americans. In January, AG Racine and New York Attorney General Letitia James co-led a multistate coalition in filing a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to challenge a new rule that would have severely limited states’ flexibility to provide food assistance to individuals struggling to find work. The coalition successfully argued that the rule change violated the federal rulemaking process, contradicted law and Congress’s intent for SNAP, and lacked a sound rationale—making it arbitrary and capricious. Agreeing on all three fronts, the Court vacated the rule entirely, granting continued access to SNAP benefits for as many as 20,000 District residents currently relying on the program.
“Congress created the SNAP program to help Americans put food on the table during times of hardship,” said AG Racine. “While the pandemic continues to drive millions of Americans into unemployment—including thousands of District residents—the Trump administration is focused on cutting vital food assistance rather than helping those in greatest need. The Court’s invalidation of the USDA’s rule change is an important victory to protect SNAP recipients nationwide. Indeed, as Chief Judge Howell wrote in her opinion, the administration’s proposal ‘radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving States scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans.’ We thank New York and the multistate coalition, the D.C. Department of Human Services, and the Legal Aid Society for the District of Columbia for their support and assistance in this lawsuit.”
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
SNAP has served as the country’s primary response to hunger since 1977, and a critical part of federal and state efforts to help lift people out of poverty. The program provides access to nutrition for millions of Americans with limited incomes 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. In its 1996 federal welfare reform law, Congress limited the time period that unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) could access SNAP benefits to three months in any 36-month period. Still, the law granted states the ability to request waivers for that time limit if the state or part of the state had an unemployment rate above 10 percent, or did not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for the SNAP recipients who resided there. Congress has reauthorized the statute four times without limiting states’ discretion over these matters—including in the 2018 Farm Bill, in which a bipartisan coalition rejected nearly identical restrictions to those later created by the rule.
Shortly after President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, USDA announced a proposed rule seeking to do that which Congress had just expressly rejected. Despite strong opposition from a broad range of stakeholders—including a multistate coalition of Attorneys General led by AG Racine—USDA’s final rule went even further in restricting state discretion over waivers and exemptions than what it initially proposed, and would have produced significant obstacles for the states.
Federal Court’s Ruling
In the 67-page decision, Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell noted that “the backdrop of the pandemic has provided, in stark relief, [the] procedural and substantive flaws” of the rule change. Within two months of the start of the pandemic, over six million Americans enrolled in SNAP. Chief Judge Howell further observed that USDA was “icily silent” on the question of how many of these enrollees would be locked out of SNAP benefits as a result of USDA’s proposal.
The Court ruled that USDA’s change:
- Violated the federal rulemaking process: The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) governs internal procedures for federal agencies, including rulemaking. Among other requirements, agencies must provide sufficient notice of the proposed changes to allow meaningful public comment on the substance of a rule. USDA’s final rule diverged from its proposed rule in significant ways and justified many changes using vague, undefined language, denying commenters meaningful opportunity to weigh in on the full extent of the agency’s changes.
- Contradicted statutory language and Congress’s intent for the food-stamp program: On multiple occasions—most recently in 2018—Congress has reaffirmed in law its position that the states are best equipped to determine whether there are sufficient job opportunities are available for ABAWDs, what specific geographic areas needed waivers, and to provide nuanced evidence substantiating that need to USDA. USDA’s rule directly contravened the law and congressional intent by severely restricting the states’ discretion over these matters. Specifically, the rule curtailed the states’ ability to identify a geographic area eligible for waivers and limited the evidence states could submit to support waiver requests. The Court also found that the rule’s restriction of states’ ability to carry over discretionary exemptions—which allow states to provide an extra month of benefits to those who would otherwise be subject to the time limit—beyond one year was contrary to the express language of the statute.
- Was poorly reasoned, rendering it arbitrary and capricious: The APA requires agencies to offer a reasoned explanation for changing long-held policies and address why the facts and circumstances supporting the prior policy should be disregarded. The Court agreed that USDA did not offer adequate explanations for why the agency was changing course from over two decades of practice, that the changes were contrary to the evidence before the agency, and that USDA failed to account for substantial reliance interests and costs to the States and disproportionate impacts on protected classes.
At the preliminary injunction stage, the Court had put a hold on USDA’s new waiver rules, while allowing the exemption rules to move forward. With this decision, the Court has declared both aspects unlawful, vacating the rule in its entirety.
AGs Racine and James co-led this coalition joined by Attorneys General from California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia, along with the City of New York. Several high-profile organizations filed briefs and declarations supporting the coalition’s arguments, including the U.S. House of Representatives, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Food Research and Action Center, and a broad coalition of legal aid and anti-poverty groups.
The Court’s opinion is available at: https://oag.dc.gov/sites/default/files/2020-10/SNAP-ABAWD-Opinion.pdf
The Office of the Attorney General received critical assistance from the DC Department of Human Services while preparing this lawsuit. The multistate action was consolidated with an action brought on behalf of private plaintiffs by the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia.
Defending Access to Anti-Hunger Programs
This victory is just the latest in AG Racine’s work to protect low-income District residents from federal efforts to gut the social safety net. AG Racine led efforts opposing other USDA rule changes, including a 24-state comment opposing a proposed rule that would gut categorical eligibility for SNAP benefits among those eligible for other assistance programs. AG Racine also joined a coalition of five Attorneys General in a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s “Public Charge Rule,” which was designed to discourage hardworking eligible immigrants and their families from accessing programs like SNAP.