Hawaii’s AG, others file suit over food stamps rule

  • BHANOT

  • CONNORS

State Attorney General Clare E. Connors has joined a group of 20 state attorneys general and New York City in a lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from eliminating food assistance for almost 700,000 Americans.

The lawsuit, filed in Washington, D.C., challenges a U.S. Department of Agriculture rule that would limit states’ ability to extend benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — commonly known as “food stamps” — beyond a three-month period for certain adults.

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Connors and her counterparts assert that the rule directly undermines Congress’ intent for the food-stamp program, and that the USDA violated the federal rule-making process. Further, they argue that the rule would impose significant regulatory burdens on the states and harm their residents and economies.

The coalition is urging the court to declare the rule unlawful and issue an injunction to prevent it from taking effect.

“The USDA rule is contrary to the underlying SNAP statute and its adoption failed to follow legal processes,” Connors said in a statement Friday. “Allowing this rule to take effect undermines the ability of individual states to care for its most vulnerable citizens.”

The new rule is to take effect on April 1.

“We stand together with Attorney General Connors and we assert that the rule directly undermines Congress’ intent for the food-stamp program, and that the USDA violated the federal rulemaking process,” said Pankoj Bhanot, director of the state Department of Human Services.

Under current rules, work-eligible, able-bodied adults without dependents and between the ages of 18 and 49 can receive only three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period if they don’t meet the 20-hour work requirement. But states with high unemployment rates or a demonstrable lack of sufficient jobs can waive those time limits.

The new rule imposes stricter criteria states must meet in order to issue waivers. Under the plan, states can only issue waivers if a city or county has an unemployment rate of 6% or higher. The waivers will be good for one year and will require the governor to support the request.

Hawaii’s unemployment rate was 2.3% in December, lower than the national unemployment rate of 3.4%. Those figures, which are not seasonally adjusted, are the latest available from the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

Molokai had a non-seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate of 5% in December. But the new rule requires Molokai to be placed within Maui County as a “labor market area.” Maui’s non-seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate was 2.2% in December.

About 400 adults on Molokai will lose their SNAP benefits if the new rule takes effect on April 1 and the island loses its state-granted waiver on March 31.

“Despite the fact that the island of Molokai has a much higher unemployment rate than the rest of the state, and it is geographically and physically separated from the islands of Maui and Lanai, it can only be considered for waiver purposes as a combined (labor market area),” the lawsuit states. “As a result, the unemployment rate for Molokai will be diluted by data from Maui and Lanai, which have stronger economies. Residents in the economically struggling rural community on the island of Molokai are doing substantially worse than the national average and are more nutritionally at risk.”

The lawsuit claims the rule, if allowed to take effect, will leave Molokai ineligible for a waiver, even though affected adults will “have no greater employment prospects or the ability to become self-sufficient.”

Bhanot said the rule harms not only those dropped from the SNAP rolls, but the states, who are charged with administering the program.

“Indeed, the rule ignores the substantial fiscal and administrative burdens newly imposed on states, including harm to the states’ economies, increased costs associated with providing care for residents suffering from the negative health effects of malnutrition and housing instability, and increased costs associated with the administration of SNAP under the new rule,” he said.

When announcing the rule last month, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said it will help move people “from welfare to work.”

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“We want to encourage people by giving them a helping hand, but not an infinitely giving hand,” Purdue said.

The Agriculture Department estimates the change would save roughly $5.5 billion over five years and cut benefits for roughly 688,000 SNAP recipients nationwide.

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