(Bloomberg) -- The coronavirus pandemic has given local governments and food banks a reprieve from a Trump administration rule that would have wiped out food stamps for 700,000 poor Americans.
Before a judge issued an injunction on March 13, the administration didn’t heed calls for a delay in the change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It was to go into effect April 1, the first of three revisions that could ultimately remove almost 4 million people from food-assistance rolls.
The government was foolhardy to press ahead, said Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research and Action Center. “When you have a recession or you have an emergency, you don’t want people struggling out there, particularly if they’re sick.”
What’s more, she said, SNAP can help the economy, though, of course, only if stores remain open: Every $1 billion in benefits has resulted in an addition of $1.5 billion to gross domestic product during a recession, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food-stamp program.
The 700,000 who would have felt the first effects may not seem like much in a population of nearly 330 million, but states, cities, charities and grocery stores had been sweating it.
“Our cities cannot make up this difference -- it’s too big,” said Holly Freishtat, Baltimore’s food policy director. “It’s not like we have our own funding source to offset this.”
With a poverty rate of 21.8%, well above the U.S. average, Baltimore was particularly exposed. SNAP has been an economic driver; in 2017, the last year for which figures are available, retailers in Maryland redeemed about $1.1 billion in food stamp benefits.
With an estimated 15,000 people no longer able to use them, the damage could have added as much as $33 million in lost revenue for grocery stores, according to the city’s calculations.
The Poor Spend
B. Green Wholesale, which supplies markets in three states and operates two in Baltimore, ran its own numbers: SNAP beneficiaries make 50% of all purchases at its city locations.
There would have been layoffs, in addition to those that will come because of the coronavirus, said Chief Operating Officer Rick Rodgers. “It would not have been good.”
With the virus delivering its devastating slam, Democrats in Congress asked for a postponement. Representative Barbara Lee of California at a hearing on March 10 called the tightening of SNAP rules at this time “cruel.”
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said the USDA had considered pausing the rule change because of the virus but ultimately decided against it. “What we’re trying to do is enforce the law as it was intended,” he testified.
In her injunction ruling, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell rebuked that attitude.
“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,” she wrote in her opinion, which puts most of the new rule on hold while the court considers it.
In the emergency coronavirus bill passed by the House, which the Senate may take up next week, the tougher food-stamp requirements are suspended.
Congress kept SNAP intact in 2018 when it passed the farm bill, which President Donald Trump signed. Two months later, the USDA issued the first amendment, which it said could this year eliminate $1.1 billion annually in benefit payments.
That would be less than a 2% reduction; SNAP served 34.4 million people at a cost of $58.5 billion last year, with the average recipient getting $4.30 a day.
Even just a 2% reduction is too much, according to the lawsuit filed by 19 states, the District of Columbia and New York City, which cites “substantial fiscal and administrative burdens.” The USDA’s said in its response that states have been “abusing” their authority to grant exemptions to allow more people to qualify.
Over the next year -- barring legal action -- other rules will target roughly 3 million more people, including children and the elderly, and make it tougher to qualify for reduced and free school lunches.
The administration has argued that with unemployment at a generational low, all SNAP recipients who are able should find jobs. Angela Rachidi, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said she agreed with that assessment, with some leeway.
“If the feds allow states to bypass any criteria during the crisis, the rule change doesn’t matter,” she said. But “when things go back to normal, the rule change will still make sense.”
At the moment, able-bodied adults without dependents qualify if they meet 20-hour weekly work, job training or school requirements. If they don’t, they’re restricted to three months worth of food stamps over three years.
States can grant waivers to the requirements under certain conditions, and most have. Their ability to do that would have been be severely curtailed.
Food bank operators said they wouldn’t have been able to fill the void. For every meal they provide, SNAP delivers nine, according to the Maryland Food Bank, which supplies pantries, soup kitchens and other charities.
“No matter what tool we use, we’re not doing enough,”said Meg Kimmel, executive vice president of programs and external affairs. “There’s no place in the city where we are providing enough food.”
Before the court ruling, Lamar Hardy said he was starting to panic.
The 34-year-old Baltimore resident, who has been on and off food stamps since 2007, currently receives $189 a month from SNAP. His last temporary employment stint was at a Wal-Mart store over the holidays; he said he has had no success finding work since then.
“I feel bad that I even have to utilize these services,” he said. But they’re vital. “That little bit of money I get -- that helps me throughout the week. I really want to know what’s to be gained by cutting this program. It just looks like you’re being mean to poor people.”
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