Connecticut Sues to Block Federal Plan to Eliminate Food Assistance for Nearly 700,000 Struggling Americans
15 Attorneys General and New York City Allege the USDA Attempted to Circumvent Congress with Unlawful Food Stamp Rule Change
(Hartford, CT) – Attorney General William Tong today joined a group of 15 attorneys general and New York City in a lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from eliminating food assistance for nearly 700,000 Americans – including almost 26,000 people in Connecticut.
The lawsuit, filed in Washington 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 unemployed adults who live in economically-depressed areas. The coalition is urging the court to declare the rule unlawful and issue an injunction to prevent it from taking effect.
"This proposal cruelly and unlawfully punishes the poor, and does absolutely nothing to improve job access. Tens of thousands of people in Connecticut alone will go hungry, with millions of dollars in cascading harm to the statewide economy. That is why Congress previously considered and roundly rejected this strategy. Our lawsuit seeks to block this plan due to the Administration's failures to follow basic, necessary administrative procedures in rushing through this fatally flawed proposal," said Attorney General Tong.
“Connecticut remains opposed this rule change that will have a detrimental effect on the ability of millions of low-income Americans, including many Connecticut residents, to access desperately needed food assistance and force even those who are trying to gain financial independence to lose these essential benefits,” said Governor Ned Lamont. “These proposed changes will only bring us backwards, create further inefficiencies and harm state residents that are already working to find employment.”
"This damaging rule threatens to take away basic nutritional support for tens of thousands of Connecticut residents who are struggling to earn a living wage," said Department of Social Services Commissioner Deidre S. Gifford. "It’s easy for someone in Washington to say the overall unemployment rate is low so just go out and get a full-time job, but this affects individual people--up to 26,000 in Connecticut--who live in higher unemployment areas like our biggest cities. We can't stand by while the Trump administration arbitrarily blocks them from food assistance. On the contrary, we need to protect them from hunger and harm to their health. I join in thanking Governor Lamont and Attorney General Tong for their leadership in fighting this destructive measure."
Approximately 363,500 Connecticut residents receive SNAP benefits—one out of every ten state residents. Under the proposed rule, 25,788 of those recipients could lose benefits. Those residents are located predominantly in the 16 communities of Hartford, New Haven, Waterbury, Bridgeport, New Britain, Meriden, East Hartford, Norwich, Manchester, Bristol, West Haven, New London, Windham/Willimantic, Middletown, Windsor and Hamden.
On average, Connecticut SNAP recipients receive $134.20 per month in benefits. In total, Connecticut residents stand to lose over $41.5 million per year if the rule takes effect. Economists estimate that loss in benefits could result in a loss of $74 million to $104 million in annual state economic activity.
The 1996 federal welfare reform law limited the time period that unemployed able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) could access SNAP benefits to three months. But the law made an exception, allowing states to request waivers of the three month time limit for regions with high unemployment. That exception makes sense: There shouldn't be a penalty for failure to work if there are no available jobs.
The new rule would severely restrict states’ ability to request such waivers by basing waivers solely on the economic conditions in large "labor market area" groupings. Such groupings ignore local economic conditions.. Under the new rule, for instance, Bridgeport SNAP recipients would be ineligible for food stamps because of low unemployment in Greenwich and Darien. Congress previously rejected the "labor market area" system as an inappropriate and unhelpful measure of local opportunities for work.
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 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 providing relief from the time limit if insufficient job opportunities. And Congress clearly indicated that states are best equipped to make the waiver 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 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.