Fourteen U.S. states, along with New York City and Washington, D.C., are suing to block a new Trump administration rule that tightens work requirements for people on food stamps, arguing that the regulation ignores the labor issues facing poor Americans.
The rule will also lead to higher state costs due to hunger and higher health care expenditures, as well as from increased administrative burdens to handle the new regulation, the lawsuit alleges. The states and cities allege that the new rule forces them to rely on overly broad jobless data that ignores the realities of regions around the country where good-paying jobs can still be hard to come by.
Theas part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's push to reform food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Increasing work requirements for adults between the ages of 18 to 49 who don't have children and who are "able bodied" will encourage them to return to work, Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said at the time. The food stamp program was meant to provide "assistance through difficult times, not a way of life," he said.
But narrowing eligibility for SNAP aid will have the opposite effect, according to critics.
"Implementation of this rule will not increase the employment rate among SNAP beneficiaries. But it will most definitely increase hunger," Eric Angel, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, said in a statement.
The new rule doesn't apply to children or their parents, disabled Americans, or those over age 50. The food stamp program limits Americans to three months of benefits, unless they're either working or in training for 20 hours a week. Under the old regulations, states could waive those limits if a region's unemployment rate is 20% above the national rate, which stood at 3.5% in December.
That currently places the waiver threshold at an unemployment rate of about 4.2%; the new rule will increase it to 6%, making it harder for some states to qualify for the waiver and expand food aid. As of November, only one state — Alaska — had a jobless rate above 6%.
The states that are suing are: California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Virginia.
The lawsuit argues that the new food-stamp rule "turns a blind eye" to local labor market conditions, which aren't always as rosy as the U.S. or even statewide unemployment numbers might suggest. Because states are no longer able to tailor a waiver request to a smaller area, such as a city or county, based on the local job conditions, thousands of poor residents in regions without sufficient jobs will be hurt, the complaint argues.
Take Vermont, the state with the lowest jobless rate in the nation, at 2.3%. Despite the low unemployment number, Vermont has received a waiver for the work requirements every year since 2013, the suit notes. But the waiver doesn't cover the entire state — just a remote corner of the state called the "Northeast Kingdom."
This extremely rural region, which has an underdeveloped economy and a lack of public transportation, would see hundreds of households lose their food stamps this year, the lawsuit said. The USDA itself has described the region's population as having "lost their economic foundation, leaving behind poverty and a community infrastructure with few means of support."
Although SNAP recipients qualify as "able-bodied adults," many suffer from issues that increase their challenges finding work. Such obstacles include a lack of high school education, undiagnosed mental illness and physical disabilities that haven't yet qualified for disability benefits.
States "face hundreds of thousands, even millions, of dollars in increased administrative costs as a result of the rule," the suit claims. The costs stem from alerting residents that their SNAP benefits are ending and handling more requests for recertification of SNAP benefits from residents that have lost their food stamps.
Health care costs are also likely to rise, the lawsuit alleges.
"Health care costs for low-income adults receiving SNAP benefits are on average 25 percent less than for low-income adults not participating in SNAP," it says. And because poor residents will have less money available for other necessities, such as housing, it could also increase housing subsidy costs for U.S. states, it says.