Attorney General Ellison, coalition win halt to Trump Administration cuts to food assistance for 8,000 Minnesotans
Federal judge ruled USDA’s ‘arbitrary and capricious’ food stamp rule change defied rulemaking procedure and congressional intent
October 21, 2020
October 20, 2020 (SAINT PAUL) – Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison today announced that a federal court has permanently blocked an effort by the Trump administration to revoke vital Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility for more than 8,000 Minnesotans and a total 700,000 Americans.
In January, Attorney General Ellison filed a lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), as a part of a coalition of 15 states and the City of New York, to challenge a new rule that would have severely limited states’ flexibility to provide food assistance to individuals struggling to find work. Attorney General Ellison and 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 8,000 Minnesota residents who currently rely on the program.
“I joined this lawsuit back in January because it was already hard to believe then that the Trump Administration would actually try to make it harder for people to afford to eat. Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it’s unconscionable. I’m gratified the court’s ruling will keep Minnesotans from going hungry from the administration’s cruelty,” Attorney General Ellison said.
Federal court ruling
In the 67-page decision, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia 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. The Court 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 available for able-bodied adults without dependents ABAWDs, what specific geographic areas needed waivers, and to provide nuanced evidence substantiating that need to the 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 the 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.
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 limits states’ discretion, which Congress had just expressly rejected. Despite strong opposition from a broad range of stakeholders, including the multistate coalition of attorneys general that Attorney General Ellison joined, 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.
Joining Attorney General Ellison in the coalition, which was co-led by District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine and New York Attorney General Letitia James, are the attorneys general of California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, 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 on the website of District of Columbia Attorney General Racine.