Press Release

Attorney General Ellison sues to stop Trump Administration from ending food assistance for more than 8,000 Minnesotans

Joins coalition fighting USDA rule change that undermines law and congressional intent and would hurt nearly 700,000 nationwide

January 16, 2020 (SAINT PAUL) – Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison today joined a group of 15 attorneys general and the City of New York in filing a lawsuit to stop the Trump administration from eliminating food assistance for more than 8,000 Minnesotans and a total of nearly 700,000 Americans. The lawsuit challenges a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rule that would limit states’ ability to extend benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as “food stamps,” beyond a three-month period for certain adults. Attorney General Ellison and the coalition assert that the rule directly undermines Congress’ intent for the food-stamp program, and that the USDA violated the federal rulemaking process. Further, they argue that the rule would impose significant regulatory burdens on the states and harm states’ residents and economies.

The coalition is urging the court to declare the rule unlawful and issue an injunction to prevent it from taking effect on April 1 of this year.

“It’s hard to believe that the Administration wants to make it even harder than it already is for people to afford their lives and even harder for some people to afford to eat, but time and again they’ve shown us that’s what they’re up to,” Attorney General Ellison said. “It’s my job to protect the people of Minnesota. When the federal government is out to hurt them, I’ll fight back for them.”

Background of rule and harm to Minnesotans

SNAP has served as the country’s primary response to hunger since 1977. The program provides access to nutrition for millions of Americans with limited incomes who would otherwise struggle with food insecurity. While the federal government pays the full cost of SNAP benefits, it shares the costs of administering the program with the states, which operate the program.

Congress amended SNAP in 1996 with the goal of encouraging greater workforce participation among beneficiaries. The changes introduced a three-month time limit on SNAP benefits for unemployed people aged 18–49 who are not disabled or raising children. The law allows a state to acquire a waiver of the time limit for those recipients for areas where the unemployment rate is high or there are not enough jobs. States also were given a limited number of one-month exemptions for people who would otherwise lose benefits under the time limit, and were permitted to carry over unused exemptions to use during economic downturns.

Over the last 24 years, Congress has maintained the criteria for states to obtain waivers and carry over unused exemptions. It has reauthorized the law four times without limiting states’ discretion over these matters. House Republicans considered adding restrictions on waivers and carry-overs in the 2018 Farm Bill, but a bipartisan coalition expressly rejected them in the final legislation.

Shortly after President Trump signed the 2018 Farm Bill into law, the USDA announced a proposed rule seeking changes almost identical to those Congress rejected. The Department received more than 100,000 comments on the rule, the majority of which reflected strong opposition from a broad range of stakeholders. Regardless, when USDA’s final rule went into effect, it went even further in restricting state discretion over waivers and exemptions than it had initially proposed.
Twenty-six Minnesota counties are currently approved for time-limit waivers, but under the new rule, 23 will no longer qualify. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, approximately 2,100 Minnesotans will lose their food assistance if the time-limit waiver is eliminated, and approximately 6,000 Minnesotans will lose their food assistance if Minnesota can no longer carry over unused exemptions. DHS also estimates it will cost the State at least $500,000 of staff time and retraining if the new rule takes effect on April 1.

In the lawsuit, Attorney General Ellison and the states argue that the Administration’s rule contradicts both the language of the law and congressional intent; is arbitrary and capricious; violates the federal rulemaking process; and raises states’ costs for healthcare and homelessness while hurting states’ economies.

The states also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to enjoin the rule from going into effect on April 1, 2020.
Attorney General Ellison joined the coalition that includes District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine and New York Attorney General Letitia James, who are co-leading it, and the attorneys general of California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Jersey, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Virginia, along with the City of New York. The lawsuit was filed in United States District Court for the District of Columbia.

A copy of the complaint is available on the website of District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine.