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If ever there was a time for food assistance

Government bureaucracy, in its most red-tape moves, can find wily ways to accomplish its goals without troubling lawmakers to enact a change. Using their mandate to write the rules that carry out the laws, agencies and departments can soften or thwart the intent of a law — until challenged in court.

That's one way that executive branch departments such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture try to deliver on the boss's campaign promises. USDA wanted to remove about 700,000 adults without dependents from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program by averaging out the unemployment rate in geographical labor markets. In the months before anyone knew that the COVID-19 pandemic would shut down the economy, the department concocted standards that would eliminate states' authority to waive work requirements in certain economic areas. The underlying message was "Unemployment is low. Get a job."

Unemployment is now rampant and the pandemic is already in its eighth month, so a federal judge's recent decision to vacate the proposed USDA Final Rule is a victory for fairness that comes when it is most needed.

The agriculture department had planned to end states' authority to extend SNAP eligibility beyond three months in a three-year period for adults without dependents if they lived in a labor market with a low average unemployment rate. Higher-unemployment Bridgeport, for example, would be averaged out in the same labor market as upscale Greenwich and Darien. Nineteen state attorneys general, including Connecticut's William Tong, sued the agriculture department early in 2020 and won a temporary injunction in federal district court.

We welcome the new ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell of the District of Columbia. Cutting off food stamp eligibility with questionable unemployment arithmetic and without regard to an individual's health or other limitations was wrong even when the economy was good. It was another example of the Trump administration favoring the well off and punishing the disadvantaged.

Most egregious is that instead of recognizing that millions more are now out of work and applying for SNAP to make it through the shutdown, USDA pushed forward with defense of its proposed rule. Judge Howell ruled the proposal was an abrupt change in regulatory practice that left states "scrambling" and increased food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans. She also described the agriculture department as "icily silent about how many would have been denied SNAP benefits had the changes sought ... been in effect while the pandemic rapidly spread across the country."

At the time the suit was filed, Connecticut officials estimated the proposed change would save an average of $134.20 monthly on each person who became ineligible. In normal times that would be about 26,000 Connecticut residents and would save the state about $4 million a year. USDA estimated the rule would save taxpayers about $1.1 billion per year — in normal times — and that 1,087,000 individuals would be newly subject to eligibility time limits, resulting in 688,000 people being dropped in the current fiscal year.

That was then. Normalcy vanished months ago, creating vast need and governmental response. Although the nation has waited in vain for Congress and the Trump administration to follow up with more income support this fall, the CARES act that passed in the spring saved many individuals and businesses from even worse losses for several months. Rather than seeking ways to dump people from the food stamps program, USDA should have been on the same page, using its well-established programs to help. 

The SNAP system is designed as a federal and state cooperative effort that involves labor readiness training and other measures to get recipients off food stamps as soon as possible. USDA is fortunate to have such a program already in place as Americans seek both food and job assistance to get back on their feet. The department lost the court battle; now it should get with the program. 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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