Judge Ruling Means 700,000 Americans Will Keep SNAP Food Benefits

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Hundreds of thousands of SNAP recipients will continue to receive food assistance.

SNAP food benefits are a lifeline for many struggling families, even more so in the wake of the coronavirus-induced economic crisis. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are designed to help low-income families put food on the table. 

SNAP helped over 38 million Americans buy essentials in 2019 alone. And between February and May 2020, the pandemic pushed demand for SNAP benefits up another 17%.

However, a knife has been hanging over the program since last December, when the USDA announced states would lose their ability to waive recipients' work requirements. The new rule, slated to take effect in April, would have impacted around 700,000 Americans.

Here's a rundown of the proposed SNAP changes and details on why a federal judge blocked them this week.

The controversial SNAP change

Outside of the pandemic, you need to be working or training an average of 20 hours a week to be eligible for SNAP. If not, able-bodied recipients with no dependents can only receive SNAP benefits for three months in a three-year period. That is, unless your state waives this work requirement.

States can either use a limited number of individual exceptions or waive the work requirement if there is high regional unemployment. The USDA felt individual states had too much leeway and people had become too reliant on food benefits, which is why, at the end of last year, it tried to make it more difficult for states to put aside the work requirement.

A USDA press release argued their plan would push more people into employment. It says, "The rule restores the system to what Congress intended: assistance through difficult times, not a way of life."

Hunger campaigners, food activists, and many state authorities disagree. Indeed, 19 states, along with Washington D.C. and New York City, filed a joint lawsuit to prevent the USDA from changing the SNAP rules.

Judge rules it would increase food instability

In March, U.S. District Court Judge Beryl Howell granted a preliminary injunction which prevented the April implementation of the new rule. At the same time, the CARES Act both boosted SNAP benefits and temporarily removed the work requirement because of the novel coronavirus.

This week, Judge Howell's preliminary judgment became permanent. In a 67-page ruling, she stressed that the overarching goal of SNAP is to enable states to provide nutritional benefits to those in need.

She wrote, "The Final Rule at issue in this litigation radically and abruptly alters decades of regulatory practice, leaving States scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans."

The judge also criticized the USDA for failing to fully consider the administrative costs and the disproportionate impact it would have on racial and ethnic minorities and vulnerable populations.

How to apply for SNAP benefits

The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has pushed millions of people into poverty. Since SNAP benefits are now safe, there's no reason not to apply if you are in a tough spot financially. In addition to the work requirements, your monthly income will need to be less than 130% of the federal poverty line, and your assets must fall within certain limits. 

Food benefits increased slightly in October, taking the maximum a family of four can receive to $680 a month. State requirements vary slightly, so contact your state's SNAP program to find out if you are eligible. You may also be entitled to state unemployment, as well as medical, heating, and housing assistance. It's also worth contacting local food pantries and soup kitchens to see what help they offer. 

If you have lost your job or are having trouble paying bills, don't be afraid to ask for help. In addition to state assistance, you can call 211 and ask about grants or local charities who might be able to lend a hand.

If you are having trouble paying your bills, it's worth calling your creditors to explain your situation. Many banks and financial institutions will likely be willing to delay payments or reduce fees if you've been impacted by COVID-19. You might also be eligible for a coronavirus hardship loan, a special low-interest personal loan aimed at helping people through the pandemic. Make sure to take a look at all the options in place to help you and your family navigate this difficult time.

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