New York City today joined a group of 15 Attorneys General in a lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from eliminating food assistance for nearly 700,000 Americans. The lawsuit, filed in D.C., 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 lawsuit asserts that the rule directly undermines Congress’ intent for the food-stamp program and that the USDA violated the federal rulemaking process. Further, they argue that the rule would impose significant regulatory burdens on the states and harm states’ residents and economies. The coalition is urging the court to declare the rule unlawful and issue an injunction to prevent it from taking effect.
“In the world’s wealthiest country, no New Yorker should be forced to choose between putting food on the table and filling a prescription,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio. “Denying food assistance to the thousands of New Yorkers who rely on these programs every day is a targeted attack against our most vulnerable—and it’s one we will not stand for.”
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.
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). Congress understood that states were best positioned to assess whether local economic conditions and labor markets provided ABAWDs reasonable employment opportunities. As a result, the law allows a state to acquire a waiver of the ABAWD time limit for areas where the unemployment rate is above 10 percent, or if it presents data demonstrating that the area lacks sufficient jobs for ABAWDs. States also were 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, Congress has maintained the criteria for states to obtain waivers and to carry over unused exemptions. It has reauthorized the statute four times without limiting states’ discretion over these matters. House Republicans considered adding restrictions on waivers and carryovers in the 2018 Farm Bill, but a bipartisan coalition expressly rejected them in the final legislation.
Shortly after President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, USDA announced a proposed rule seeking changes almost identical to those Congress rejected. 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.
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 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 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. 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 (APA) 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.
District of Columbia AG Karl Racine and New York AG Letitia James are co-leading this coalition, and are joined by attorneys general from California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia, along with the City of New York. The lawsuit was filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia. The States filed a Motion for Preliminary Injunction concurrently with the complaint to enjoin the rule from going into effect on April 1, 2020.
The complaint as filed is available here
“The de Blasio administration does what it takes to protect our most vulnerable New Yorkers, and today we are taking action to fight a callous and misguided attempt to remove a lifeline for tens of thousands of individuals in our city,” said Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr. Raul Perea-Henze. “Healthy communities are built by creating opportunities for long-term and stable employment, not by denying SNAP benefits to New Yorkers who rely on this assistance to meet basic needs.”
“With this rule, the Trump Administration would add one more brick in the wall between the most vulnerable and everyone else,” NYC Corporation Counsel James E. Johnson said. If left unchallenged, this rule will cut off basic food assistance for nearly 700,000 people and harm the economies of our cities and many states. In New York City alone, 50,000 women and men would lose over $90 million in SNAP benefits annually and our local economy would lose more than $161 million annually in economic activity. This rule forces the most vulnerable residents to make the harshest of choices: choose food or choose other essentials of life, including housing and medicine. This would make long-term stable employment less likely, which is the exact opposite of the result the rule-makers claim to desire. With this rule, the Trump Administration casts aside our disadvantaged residents and does an end-run around the will of Congress, which rejected the very measures the Administration now seeks to impose on its own. It is the duty of the City of New York to join the fight for the essential needs of its residents who depend on this vital program.”
“Since day one of the Trump Administration, this President has singled out vulnerable Americans on the basis of their socio-economic status, threatening their health and well-being by taking away basic benefits and services, including taking food away from New Yorkers in need,” said Department of Social Services Commissioner Steven Banks. “Today, together with a group of 15 Attorney Generals, we are fighting this latest unthinkable—and unlawful—proposal that would deprive hundreds of thousands of Americans and tens of thousands of New Yorkers of essential food assistance that they rely on every day. Our City intends to use every tool at our disposal, including taking Trump to court, to ensure that all individuals are treated with dignity, are able to live healthy, fulfilling lives, and can access the benefits to which they are entitled.”
“Many Americans are struggling to put food on the table. But, instead of helping those families, the White House wants to hand 700,000 of them an empty plate. The Trump Administration’s plan to slash SNAP is another cruel attempt to hurt Americans. We must do everything we can to stop him in his efforts to do harm. That’s why I’m so proud that New York City is part of this lawsuit to stop this Administration from preventing individuals from accessing food, one of our most basic human rights,” said Speaker Corey Johnson.
“The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is a critical part of federal and state efforts to help the underserved community,” said Council Member Mathieu Eugene.” SNAP provides food assistance to thousands of hardworking Americans who require it to care for their families. I join my colleagues in requesting that the federal government refrain from limiting the state’s ability to extend these benefits to those who need them most. As elected officials, we must work together to prevent the disruption of government services intended to help those who struggle with food insecurity.”