On March 13, 2020, the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia issued an injunction halting the implementation of a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule expanding work requirements in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The rule, finalized in December 2019, was set to take effect on April 1, 2020 with USDA estimating that nearly 700,000 able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) would lose eligibility for SNAP as a result. The injunction comes as a response to a January lawsuit filed by 19 states plus the District of Columbia and New York City seeking to overturn the regulation.
The USDA rule narrows the “economic hardship” criteria and limits the geographic areas eligible for state waivers of SNAP work requirements for childless adults, which could make it more difficult for counties to leverage the program to help residents meet basic needs and stimulate local economies during unexpected downturns. County agencies may face additional administrative and financial burden due to an increase in time spent screening and tracking beneficiaries as they move on and off SNAP and as residents rely on other county safety net programs to compensate for the loss of federal benefits. Counties in 10 states are responsible for administering the SNAP program, representing 31 percent of the total national caseload.
Those concerns are elevated amid the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus and its effect on the most vulnerable Americans. Several states have increased efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19 by closing non-essential services such as restaurants, bars, gyms and movie theaters. As business are forced to close, workers face significant economic uncertainty and those who access SNAP to afford groceries may struggle to comply with the program’s work and training requirements.
In her decision to suspend implementation, Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia referenced the COVID-19 outbreak and cited the important role that state and local governments play in addressing the nutritional needs of residents through federal programs such as SNAP and emphasized the need for flexibility over the administration of this program in light of the pandemic. The change to SNAP is now blocked from taking effect pending the outcome of the lawsuit, though USDA may decide to appeal the ruling. Regardless, the agency must waive SNAP work and training requirements for the duration of the COVID-19 Public Health Emergency, as directed by a second relief package signed into law by the President on March 18.
NACo will continue to monitor this case and the effects of the COVID-19 outbreak on important county health and human services programs.
For more NACo resources on COVID-19, please visit our new resource center.