SNAP Judgment: Coronavirus Cited In Ruling That Blocks New Work Requirements For Food Stamps

Thousands of Mountain West residents who were slated to be kicked off food stamps will retain access to benefits next month. That's after a federal judge blocked a Trump administration rule mandating work requirements for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, or SNAP.

The new rule required able-bodied adults without children to work at least 20 hours a week in order to qualify for more than three months of SNAP benefits. If the district court hadn't blocked it from taking effect April 1, hundreds of thousands of people would need to be out looking for work, taking temporary jobs, or training in classrooms to keep their food benefits. 

"The final rule is actually directly contrary to public health advice right now," said Ed Bolen with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "Given the current context, an injunction—putting this final rule on hold—makes a tremendous amount of sense, and will allow people to maintain access to a little bit of food assistance while they're being told to stay home and stay away from people." 

In Mountain West states, more than 73,436 people were about to be kicked off of SNAP, according to an analysis by Lauren Bauer with the Brookings Institution. Bauer noted that SNAP dollars are especially important during economic crises. 

"These are dollars that are going to get spent," Bauer said. "In a moment where we're worried about maintaining high levels of consumption to stabilize the economy, everyone needs to eat and they need to keep eating. Money that's spent on food is money that's going to go back into the economy and keep things stable."

Hunger Free Colorado's Ashley Wheeland added that flexibility with SNAP requirements is especially important in rural areas.

"We have rural counties that have lower job numbers, have lower employment numbers," Wheeland said. "They're in a situation where those folks do need access to things like SNAP until their economies turn around and there's more jobs available." 

A USDA spokesperson said the agency will appeal the decision.

In the March 13 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl A. Howell referenced the risks posed to communities with the rapid spread of COVID-19.

"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," Judge Howell wrote. 

The court's decision means that the rule change is blocked until the court makes a final decision in a lawsuit challenging the Trump Administration rule. That lawsuit is joined by 19 states including Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada, as well as the District of Columbia and New York City.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.