New Jersey on Thursday joined with 15 other states and New York City in suing the federal government to block a new rule expected to cut food aid to some 12,000 New Jerseyans and as many as 850,000 people nationwide.
The suit over a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule change regarding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, is the latest in a host of legal actions the state attorney general has filed — often with other states — against Trump administration policies.
Filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the lawsuit challenges what it terms an “unlawful regulation” by USDA that will prevent New Jersey and other states from providing SNAP aid to certain adults. The USDA rule, published early last month, makes it harder for states to provide more than three months of food aid to most childless adults unless they work at least 20 hours a week.
The regulation, which is set to take effect in April, “arbitrarily reverses a decades-old policy that gave States discretion to seek waivers from the work requirements … for areas within each State that lacked sufficient jobs for benefits recipients,” the suit contends. “The statute and the USDA’s prior regulations recognize that States are in the best position to evaluate local economic circumstances and to determine where there are insufficient job opportunities such that work requirements would be ineffective.”
The plaintiffs are seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the new rule from taking effect.
Stricter rules for state waivers
New Jersey is one of the states that has used a waiver to continue to provide SNAP payments to some able-bodied adults between the ages of 18 and 49 without dependents (ABAWD). Normally, these individuals are required to work at least 20 hours a week to qualify for SNAP. States have been able to receive waivers from SNAP work requirements for areas with high unemployment. The new rule puts stricter standards on states that seek a waiver, allowing it for ABAWD only in areas where the unemployment rate is greater than 10%.
“New Jersey has been able to use flexibility to help individuals without dependents who face challenging economic circumstances receive food assistance benefits beyond a three-month limit,” Carole Johnson, commissioner of the state Department of Human Services, said in a statement. “It’s wrong to take away that flexibility when we are helping people get on a better financial footing. The Trump Administration’s rule will hurt New Jerseyans, and we hope the courts agree this is bad policy that should be stopped.”
New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, who is already involved in some three dozen legal actions against Trump administration policies, contends the SNAP rule change will hurt New Jerseyans and is illegal.
”We are committed to helping everyone in New Jersey succeed in a strong and fair economy,” Grewal said in a statement. “Too many people still struggle to make ends meet, and food insecurity only makes it harder. Taking food off the table of someone who’s struggling won’t help them thrive, and in this case, it violates federal law.”
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the rule change is appropriate to return SNAP to its original purpose, which was to help individuals during difficult times. Because the economy is booming, waiving the rules is not necessary, he said. USDA also alleges states “manipulated the waiver process,” an allegation the lawsuit contends is unsupported.
But Renee Koubiadis, executive director of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, said that is not universally the case. There are still many areas where people cannot find work because they do not have the education or training needed.
“These people are typically doing everything they possibly can to find work, but there are barriers,” she said. “Taking food assistance away from them is only going to cause more stress and health issues … We know we don’t have enough food pantries and soup kitchens to make up for the loss of food aid.”
Studies have shown that SNAP can counteract food insecurity and lower health care costs for recipients, and states will wind up having to pay more if the rule takes effect. Without SNAP benefits, many will be forced to choose between having food to eat or a place to live, while their decreased purchasing power may harm local economies. All these impacts will hurt New Jersey and the other states, the plaintiffs contend.
“The Rule unequivocally runs afoul of Congress’s intent to ensure food security for low-income individuals and to permit States, who have a better understanding of their labor markets and economic conditions, to apply for waivers and use exemptions where local or individual circumstances warrant relief from the ABAWD time limit,” the lawsuit states.
USDA’s new rule resembles proposed limits to SNAP that Congress has rejected on multiple occasions, most recently in 2018. According to the complaint, USDA’s decision to adopt the new limits without congressional authorization violates federal law. USDA also violated procedural requirements for federal agency rules, the plaintiffs allege.
Gov. Phil Murphy has signed into law a number of patches to the state’s safety net programs, including a restoration of SNAP to some residents cut off by the former Christie administration and expanded housing aid. He pledged last month that the state would “do everything we can in order to fight back” against the rule change.
Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey, applauded the Murphy administration for joining in the suit.
“We know that taking food aid away from people does not help them find jobs,” she said. “Having the ability to extend benefits supports people who are looking for work, but are having a hard time finding a job that pays a living wage. We’re hopeful the states will prevail.”
The rule change only affects adults without children and without a disability, who are considered able to work. It does not apply to children and their parents, people age 50 or older, pregnant women or the disabled.
In September 2019, close to 346,000 households in New Jersey, with 683,000 individuals, received SNAP benefits, according to DHS data. Although the report does not break out the ABAWD SNAP population, officials estimate 12,000 will lose their aid if the rule stands. The total amount that came into the state to cover SNAP in September 2019 was slightly more than $78 million.
The Trump administration has proposed other cutbacks to federal safety net programs, and SNAP in particular. For instance, another proposed change would end the practice of allowing working people with gross incomes slightly above the poverty level to qualify for benefits. New Jersey is one of 42 states and territories in which individuals would lose their SNAP aid should that change take effect. Advocates have long argued that the federal poverty level, currently $25,750 for a family of four, does not reflect economic reality in a high-cost state like New Jersey. This change would impact significantly more people than the stricter ABAWD rule; an estimated 11% of New Jersey households would lose their SNAP benefits, translating into about 92,000 individuals.