AP NEWS

USDA now undecided on challenging judge’s food stamps ruling

March 20, 2020 GMT
Two residents select items on a community table, filled with groceries for those in need, in Derry, N.H., Wednesday, March 18, 2020. The table was started as part of a local Facebook group, reaching out to residents that are impacted by the virus outbreak and the quick slowdown in the economy. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Two residents select items on a community table, filled with groceries for those in need, in Derry, N.H., Wednesday, March 18, 2020. The table was started as part of a local Facebook group, reaching out to residents that are impacted by the virus outbreak and the quick slowdown in the economy. For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms. For some, it can cause more severe illness, especially in older adults and people with existing health problems. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Agriculture Department on Thursday backed off its statement that it would appeal a court decision blocking changes to the food stamp program that would have resulted in hundreds of thousands of people losing benefits.

U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell ruled last week that the agency could not move forward with the new rule, which was to take effect April 1.

Asked about the ruling Wednesday, an Agriculture Department spokesperson said in an email that “USDA disagrees with the court’s reasoning and will appeal its decision.”

On Thursday, however, a senior USDA official said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue had not decided whether or not to appeal, saying the agency was focused now on the coronavirus pandemic. The official was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official cited the package of coronavirus relief legislation that President Donald Trump signed into law Wednesday. The package prevents anyone from losing food stamps for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic.

Perdue, in a public statement released Thursday, said his department was focused on maintaining food security in the midst of a crisis.

“We are going to be as flexible as we can at USDA to get food out to people who may need it,” Perdue said. “People need food and that’s what USDA does.”

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 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 Perdue, would have taken that waiver ability from the states, starting April 1. Estimates from the Agriculture Department set the number of people who would be removed from the program at approximately 700,000.

What remains unclear is what will happen later this year when the pandemic crisis presumably passes. The USDA official said the agency has until mid-May to decide whether or not to appeal Howell’s ruling.

Perdue has been a strong supporter of the changes, saying they were necessary to prevent people from becoming used to a lifetime of “government dependency.”

“We need to encourage people by giving them a helping hand but not allowing it to become an indefinitely giving hand,” he wrote in an editorial last year.