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Nessel and Coalition of AGs Announce Federal Court Blocks Trump Administration From Cutting Food Benefits

LANSING – Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel today announced the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia has issued a preliminary injunction in a lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from unlawfully cutting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits from approximately 90,000 Michiganders and hundreds of thousands of people across the nation.

In the lawsuit, a 20-state coalition and the City of New York challenged a new U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that would have pushed nearly 700,000 struggling Americans out of the SNAP program. The rule was scheduled to go into effect on April 1, 2020. The preliminary injunction will allow states to retain some flexibility in determining when negative economic conditions require extending SNAP benefits for single adults past the program’s three-month limit.

“I am horrified that the federal government feels comfortable in depriving adults of the essential assistance needed to put food on their tables,” said Nessel. “Although this fight is not over, I am relieved that the court halted this rule from taking effect in the midst of our current public health emergency.”

The court’s opinion – issued late last week – states in part: “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.”

The preliminary injunction is available here.

The full opinion is available here.

In the lawsuit, the states collectively argue that the administration’s rule: 

  • Contradicts statutory language and Congress’s intent for the food-stamp program: When Congress amended SNAP and added the Able-bodied Working Adult Without Dependents (ABAWD) time limit in 1996, it included a waiver process explicitly providing for relief from the time limit if insufficient job opportunities were available for ABAWDs and clearly indicating that states were best equipped to make this determination based on local economic and employment conditions. Congress has reaffirmed this position multiple times, most recently in 2018. Yet USDA’s new rule severely restricts states’ discretion over these matters and essentially writes this basis for waiver out of the statute, in direct contravention of law and congressional intent. Major aspects of the rule mirror proposed changes that Congress explicitly rejected in 2018. 
  • Raises healthcare and homelessness costs while lowering economic activity in the states: For SNAP recipients, losing benefits means losing critical access to food, raising the risk of malnutrition and other negative health effects.  Studies have shown that SNAP can counteract food insecurity and lower healthcare costs for recipients by about $1,400 per person—costs that state governments will likely bear in the absence of SNAP assistance. Without SNAP benefits, many will be forced to choose between having food to eat or a place to live. Their purchasing power will decrease, harming state economies. As USDA concedes in the rule, these impacts will be most concentrated among lower-income communities of color. 
  • Amends the law for arbitrary and capricious reasons: The Administrative Procedure Act 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. For over two decades, USDA has accepted Congress’s premise that a state should define the geographic scope of its waiver request and support that request with a wide range of data sources that are together best able to capture employment prospects for ABAWDs. Yet the new rule strictly defines the area for which waivers may be sought and rejects data beyond general unemployment figures without any justification. 
  • Violates the federal rulemaking process: The Administrative Procedure Act governs internal procedures for federal agencies, including rulemaking. Among other requirements, agencies must solicit and consider public comments on the substance of a rule. USDA broke from this process by issuing a final rule that diverged from its proposed rule in significant ways. For example, while the proposed rule maintained that a state could receive a waiver if it qualified for extended unemployment benefits under Department of Labor policies, the final rule eliminated this basis. Thus, commenters did not receive meaningful opportunity to comment on the full extent of the agency’s changes. 

Nessel joins the Attorneys General from California, Colorado, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia, along with the City of New York in this lawsuit.