WASHINGTON — The Trump administration, under fire for pushing food stamp cuts in the middle of a pandemic, has decided to hold off on stricter work requirements for adults without children during the national emergency.
“People need food and that’s what U.S.D.A. does,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said this week in a statement to The New York Times.
Initially, the Trump administration planned to appeal a court decision from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia, which issued a temporary court injunction on its work requirements rule, which were to go into effect on April 1. But it has since changed its tone. By the Agriculture Department’s own estimates, the change would have led to nearly 700,000 people losing their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
“Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP is essential,” Chief Judge Beryl Howell wrote in the decision that came the same day President Trump declared the coronavirus outbreak a national emergency.
Congress then stepped in, and in one of its economic stabilization packages, waived the work requirement for the duration of the national emergency, in addition to another month. Now the administration has reached agreement with the states that had sued it on a schedule for the remaining events in the case. The agreement is contingent on the department not appealing the temporary injunction, and a final ruling is likely to be issued in the fall.
Asked about the department’s plan to appeal the court ruling, Mr. Perdue said the department would “comply with the legislation which really pauses that during this public health emergency.”
“While we, in a normal situation, were moving in a way to enforce what the common thinking was regarding food supply, we are going to be as flexible as we can,” he said.
The food stamps program stimulates the economy when it needs it most, by expanding when people need help the most, said Lauren Bauer, a fellow at the Brookings Institution and contributor to a new report that looks at the Trump administration’s food stamp rule.
The one thing many Americans are leaving their houses to do right now is buy groceries, she said. The money is put directly back into the economy. And because Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits can be used for food, people can use their cash for something else such as rent or medical expenses.
“In the Great Recession, SNAP was the best stimulator of the economy,” Ms. Bauer said, adding that work requirements hamper the program’s ability to do that.
Ms. Bauer said that Americans were in a better place than during the recession of 2007 and 2008. At that time, only 40 percent of all American households lived in places that were eligible to have work requirements waived, Ms. Bauer said. This was because the criteria for waivers were based on economic indicators that lagged behind what was actually happening in people’s lives.
For instance, even though unemployment was high across the country, the majority of nondisabled adults without children were still initially subject to a work requirement. State and local governments hoping for work-rule waivers had to secure both executive and congressional action. For the coming recession, Ms. Bauer said, Americans are better positioned because Congress and the courts have already secured those waivers.
This fall, if the Agriculture Department decides to appeal and wins, states will find themselves subject to a stricter set of criteria for determining where they can waive requirements. Those requirements mandate that nondisabled adults without children can only receive food stamps for three months in a three-year period before they must work or participate in a work program for 80 hours in order to receive food assistance.
That requirement might hit as the United States is trying to lift itself from a deep and sudden recession.
“We don’t want to punish people, particularly low-income people, for not working when there are no jobs,” Ms. Bauer said.
That sentiment may prove to be bipartisan. Robert Rector, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation and a conservative welfare expert, said work requirements are needed, but they should not return for awhile.
“I don’t want to have unreasonable requirements, but I do want this requirement to come back once this economy recovers because I believe it is a good thing,” he said.
He said that even if the work requirements were put back as soon as the crisis was over, they “wouldn’t be binding in most areas because the unemployment rate is going to remain quite high, even if we have a robust recovery.”
Liberal advocacy groups have long said that tying the waivers to unemployment rates is unfair because the rates do not account for the obstacles to employment that face women, people of color, those with minimal education or who lack transportation.
Food banks, where demand has increased because of the pandemic, are worried that the final rule going into effect will mean more people coming to their doors.
In April, the Greater Cleveland Food Bank had a drive-through distribution in which 2,700 cars passed through in four hours; a third of them had never been to an emergency food program before. In one week, the bank received 2,000 calls. In a typical day, it usually receives 100 calls.
“We always stress that SNAP provides nine meals for every one meal provided by food banks, and I suspect SNAP will play a critical role during the pandemic and the recovery,” said Kimberly LoVano, the director of advocacy and public education at the Greater Cleveland Food Bank.