Federal Court Ruling and Congress Ensure Food Aid Reaches People With Low Incomes During the Coronavirus Crisis

By Parker Gilkesson

Even before the COVID-19 shutdowns, over 700,000 individuals were at risk of going hungry due to a new federal rule limiting nutrition assistance or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Specifically, the new regulation would tighten SNAP's harsh three-month time limit on SNAP benefits for adults who are unemployed or underemployed, and who don’t have children or a documented disability.

This rule has always been a bad idea. Pulling back food assistance is particularly harmful because when people are hungry it is harder for them to concentrate and be productive at work. It’s makes it especially difficult when millions of people are being told to stay home; many of them, such as Uber drivers or food servers, can’t telecommute. They risk losing income, hours, or losing their jobs altogether. 

Fortunately, both a federal court and Congress also recognize that putting up more barriers to food assistance was a bad idea. On March 13, a federal judge blocked implementation of the new rule. U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell issued an injunction to stop it, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by 19 states, the District of Columbia, and New York City against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Civil Action No. 20-119 (BAH). This means that states will be able to apply for waivers, which temporarily lift the time limit for higher-unemployment areas, under the old SNAP regulations rather than the much more restrictive ones laid out in the finalized rule.

In her decision, Judge Howell stated that federal and state government officials should be able to have flexibility to address the needs of residents during the COVID-19 global pandemic. She noted the proposed SNAP restrictions “prompted more than 100,000 comments,” the “majority” of which the agency concedes were opposed to the proposed changes. As Judge Howell observed, this decision highlights the importance of public comments and the role they played in rendering this rule “unlawful.” However, the Administration has said it will appeal this ruling.

This week Congress stepped in to prevent people from losing benefits due to the time limit in this crisis. The Families First Coronavirus Relief Act, just passed by Congress and signed into law by the President, goes further than the court order. It prohibits states from cutting people off SNAP due to the program’s time limits unless they refused an employment and training opportunity offered through SNAP. During the recession in 2009, Congress added similar language in the Recovery Act.

In addition, the coronavirus response bill provides an additional $500 million to the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Woman and Children (WIC) program through September 30, 2020. This SNAP-related program is critical to the health of people who are pregnant, new moms, and their children. Further, if a school is closed for 5 days or more, states will be able to provide additional SNAP benefits to help feed children while they are out of school.

As the world is experiencing a pandemic, it has become clear that our social safety net is fragile. This crisis, coupled with inflexible regulations, could force people deeper into poverty. Many low-income people are facing increased job insecurity due to schools and restaurants closing, with other service jobs being impossible to maintain. This bill includes important first steps to respond. Additional actions will be needed so we all get through this uncertain time as physically and financially healthy as possible. 

To ensure access to nutrition assistance throughout this current public health crisis, CLASP has provided recommendations to states.