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USDA fights to purge food stamps recipients despite pandemic

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Agriculture Department said Wednesday that it would appeal a judge’s ruling that it would be “arbitrary and capricious” to move forward during a global health crisis with food stamp changes that could force hundreds of thousands from the program.

Federal Judge Beryl Howell, in a ruling late last week, stopped a set of changes that would have taken effect on April 1. On Wednesday, an Agriculture Department spokesperson responded to an Associated Press query with a terse email saying only that “USDA disagrees with the court’s reasoning and will appeal its decision.”

Under the current rules, able-bodied adults without dependents must show they’ve worked at least 80 hours per month for more than three months in a 36-month period to stay in the SNAP or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly known as food stamps.

However, individual states have had the ability to waive that work requirement and time limit for areas of the state that have high unemployment rates. The changes, championed by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, would have taken that waiver ability from the states, starting on April 1. Estimates from the Agriculture Department set the number of people who would be removed from the program at approximately 700,000.

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In response to a lawsuit brought by a group of state attorneys general, Howell ordered a freeze on the changes.

“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,” Howell wrote in her ruling.

Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the advocacy group the Food Research & Action Center, said her organization opposes the changes at any time. But the idea of pressuring low-income workers to keep their hours up is particularly dangerous right now, she said.

“You don’t want to have workers going out when they’re sick and trying to document the right number of hours just to keep their benefits,” she said.

In a December column in the Arizona Republic, Perdue said the changes were designed to prevent able-bodied people from settling into a life of welfare dependence.

“Government can be a powerful force for good, but government dependency has never been the American dream,” Perdue wrote. “We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand.”

Vollinger said that if the Agriculture Department really does intend to fight for the SNAP program changes, it might end up publicly clashing with Congress. The economic relief package recently approved by the House also suspends the government’s ability to remove SNAP benefits over the work requirement.