Yesterday, a federal judge in the District of Columbia struck down an attempt by the Trump Administration to stop food benefits for nearly 700,000 unemployed people referred to by the USDA as “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents,” or “ABAWDs” in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In the decision for District of Columbia et al v. U.S. Department of Agriculture et al, which comes seven months after the same judge issued a temporary preliminary injunction halting part of the rule, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell called the USDA’s proposed rule “arbitrary and capricious,” particularly because the department failed to address the high number of people who would lose access to food, in the midst of a pandemic, if the dramatic rule change was implemented.
Impact Fund Staff Attorney David Nahmias wrote an excellent article in July with substantial background on the so-called “ABAWD Time Limit rule” and the Trump Administration/USDA’s quest to make the already tight restrictions even tighter, over the objections of tens of thousands of public commenters. The USDA’s new rule would have restricted state authority to provide waivers to the time limit for obtaining work for people who are unemployed and in need of food assistance. For the past two decades, states have been allowed to provide waivers according to the economic and employment situations in their state, which, as Judge Howell pointed out in her decision, is particularly precarious right now because of the pandemic. The USDA’s proposed rule was an attempt to take away state discretion in favor of a harsh one-size-fits-all rule that would have taken food aid away from hundreds of thousands of people who need it.
Due to the rule’s potential to negatively impact a high number of Californians, Western Center on Law & Poverty immediately began organizing against it upon its release in December 2018, which led to the submission of hundreds of opposition comments from California’s broader anti-poverty community. In November of 2019, Western Center advocates met with the Office of Management and Budget at the White House to reinforce our opposition to the rule and organized others to do the same.
In early 2020, Impact Fund and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman joined Western Center to watch and support the D.C. case. Over the summer, we led a coalition of twenty-nine legal and advocacy organizations to submit an Amicus Brief, which appears to have had a substantial impact on the overall outcome of the case – particularly regarding the discretionary exemptions statute, which we argued the USDA had right back in 1999. In her decision, Judge Howell agreed with our interpretation of that statute through explicit mention of the State Plaintiffs’ reply brief, which refers heavily to our Amicus Brief. We are very proud to have had a hand in such a significant decision.
It’s important that this attempt by the USDA to take food aid away from people who need it was struck down, but it’s also important to note that the ABAWD Time Limit rule would not exist if it wasn’t for the 1996 welfare “reform” bill, which has done significant harm to communities across the country and solidified racial and economic disparities – including making the process for obtaining food aid incredibly onerous for people already struggling with systemic poverty. Last year, California Representative Barbara Lee introduced H.R.2809 – the Improving Access to Nutrition Act of 2019, to end the SNAP ABAWD Time Limit rule altogether. Western Center helped craft and subsequently endorsed H.R.2809, which has strong support from California’s anti-hunger community.
Yesterday’s ruling on the SNAP ABAWD Time Limit rule is very welcome news in the face of an ongoing pandemic, record unemployment, civil unrest, and persistent racial injustice. It means hundreds of thousands of people in this country will continue to have access to the food they need in the middle of multiple crises. Now that the baseline is safeguarded, we must continue to push for a long term fix to inhumane SNAP food stamp rules like the ABAWD Time Limit rule.
For questions contact:
Courtney McKinney, Director of Communications, Western Center on Law & Poverty — cmckinney[at]wclp.org, (214) 395-2755
Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation & Training, Impact Fund — LNako[at]impactfund.org, (510) 845-3473 ext. 307
Erik Cummins, Senior PR Manager, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman — erik.cummins[at]pillsburylaw.com, (415) 217-9341