In the lawsuit, attorneys general from the District, Maryland, Virginia, New York, California and other states, warned that “drastic” cuts would affect 688,000 to 850,000 adults without children. They asserted the justification for the cuts were based on no evidence and ignored local labor market conditions.
“States are in the best position to evaluate local economic circumstances and to determine where there are insufficient job opportunities such that work requirements would be ineffective,” they said in a 99-page lawsuit, filed Thursday in federal court in Washington. The new rule “eliminates State discretion and criteria” and will terminate “essential food assistance for benefits recipients who live in areas with insufficient jobs.”
The lawsuit is the latest confrontation between the Trump administration and Democratic-governed states, one set off by aiming changes at a program that serves poor and unemployed people and disproportionately affects large cities. Other proposed changes would push 3 million off food assistance.
In the lawsuit, states along the northeastern U.S. corridor joined by California, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada and Oregon said their governments would face heavy new administrative and financial burdens, economic damages and increased costs from “the negative health effects of malnutrition and instability.”
“President Trump’s unlawful changes to the SNAP rule will strip nutrition assistance from tens of thousands of struggling District residents, putting their health at risk while driving up District health care costs and needlessly hampering our economy,” D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine (D) said in a statement.
“We are bringing this lawsuit to protect SNAP recipients nationwide and to check an administration that is attempting another end-run around Congress to advance its heartless agenda,” Racine said, adding the Republican-led Congress in 2018 rejected the changes as punishing people struggling to find jobs.
Racine said in the District, for example, while the region is booming for high-income workers, many of the 13,000 recipients directly at risk of losing food aid each month once cuts take effect in April are low-skilled adults without degrees or training who must compete for a small slice of low-wage jobs.
“Locking them out of food assistance will not encourage them to work. . . . It will force them to choose between putting food on the table or keeping a roof over their heads,” Racine said., making “it harder for them to acquire the skills and training they need to find jobs.”
A Justice Department spokeswoman declined to comment on the lawsuit.
Under current law, able-bodied adults without dependents between the ages of 18 and 49 can receive benefits for a maximum of three months during a three-year period, unless they are working or enrolled in an education or training program for 80 hours a month.
States have been able to waive this time limit to ensure access to food stamps during the ups and downs of reentering the workforce. Before this rule, counties with an unemployment rate as low as 2.5 percent were included in waived areas.
The new rule, set to take effect on April 1, 2020, will tighten the criteria for states applying for such waivers, making 6 percent the minimum unemployment rate for a county to receive a waiver.
In announcing the change last year, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said, “This is about restoring the original intent of food stamps . . . moving more able-bodied Americans to self sufficiency.”
Perdue cited the economic expansion as a basis for tightening states’ waivers. He said the number of Americans receiving benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has grown from 17 million to more than 36 million since 2000, although the unemployment rate is now lower.
Two other proposed rule changes, not yet final, aim to cap deductions for utility allowance and to limit access to SNAP for working poor families.
A study by the Urban Institute shows the combined impact of these rules would cut 3.7 million people from SNAP in an average month. Benefits would be reduced for millions more, and 982,000 students would lose automatic access to free or reduced-price school meals.
Critics say the changes would bite even harder during the next economic downturn.
In a joint conference call with reporters, New York State Attorney General Letitia A. James (D) added, for unemployed people from rural Appalachia to the Mississippi River delta to the Bronx in New York, “SNAP benefits are often the difference between eating and going hungry. It’s that simple.”
Laura Reiley contributed to this report.