A coalition that includes attorneys general in 14 states, the District of Columbia and New York City are suing the Agriculture Department over a plan to impose stricter work requirements on millions of food stamp recipients.
The lawsuit, filed Thursday by mostly Democratic-led states, argues that USDA unlawfully limited states' discretion to exempt certain adults from work requirements for an extended period of time based on local employment conditions.
"Under well-settled law, the executive branch does not get to go forth with policies that Congress specifically rejected," District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine said in a call with reporters. He and New York State Attorney General Tish James are leading the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
After a bitter partisan fight over the 2018 farm bill, congressional leaders agreed not to include sweeping changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that were pushed by a Republican-led House. But last year, the Trump administration began its own effort to rein in the program, arguing that the government should promote self-sufficiency when the U.S. economy is strong.
USDA recently finalized changes to SNAP that will apply to recipients who are able-bodied adults without children or other dependents. The changes take effect in April and are estimated to kick 688,000 adults off the program out of the more than 34 million people participating across the country.
“Denying access to vital SNAP benefits would only push hundreds of thousands of already vulnerable Americans into greater economic uncertainty," James said. "In so doing, states will have to grapple with rising health care and homelessness costs that will result from this shortsighted and ill-conceived policy.”
Under SNAP's current work requirements, such able-bodied adults are not supposed to receive benefits for more than three months during a three-year period unless they have a job or are enrolled in education and training programs for 20 hours a week. But states can waive that time limit when unemployment rates are high.
The USDA's new rule would make it more difficult, in part by lowering the unemployment rate required to qualify for them. USDA estimates that the change will save about $5.5 billion over five years.
There are 36 states or U.S. territories that have waivers for either certain areas or the entire state, according to USDA.
California, Michigan, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia are among the states participating in the lawsuit.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report misstated how many states are suing the USDA. It is 14 states.