The legal dispute centers on how USDA has interpreted language in the nearly $200 billion Families First Coronavirus Response Act, one of the big aid packages Congress passed in March.
The law requires USDA to grant state requests to distribute emergency allotments of SNAP as long as both the federal government and the state are under an emergency declaration due to Covid-19. But there’s disagreement about how to implement the requirement.
The law says the emergency payment can’t be higher than existing maximum benefit levels for SNAP, thresholds that are set by the size and income level of a household. USDA has taken this to mean that households already receiving the maximum benefit level each month before the pandemic — because they have little to no household income — are not eligible for any emergency payments.
Instead of giving all SNAP households emergency payments, USDA decided to bring all households up to the maximum payment levels. For a family of three, the maximum is $535 per month, which comes out to about $2 per meal per person.
“USDA’s position is consistent with congressional intent and the language Congress actually passed,” a department spokesperson said in an email.
One low-income individual who previously might have been getting $20 per month in SNAP benefits could be getting nearly 10 times that under USDA’s policy, while another low-income person who typically gets $204 per month has seen no increase whatsoever.
“It’s cruel that USDA interpreted it in such an inequitable way,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Coalition Against Hunger in Philadelphia.
Anti-hunger advocates say Congress clearly intended for all SNAP recipients to receive emergency allotments and that the maximums only apply to the emergency benefit, not the total benefits for a given month.
Any household that qualifies for SNAP is already barely making ends meet and is particularly at risk during an abrupt recession, advocates say. In Pennsylvania, for example, the gross income limit for a family of three to qualify for SNAP is just over $2,300 per month, or roughly $28,000 per year. A full-time minimum wage worker in the state could earn as little as $7.25 an hour, or about $15,080 per year.
The USDA did allow states to boost assistance for millions of households whose incomes were high enough that they weren’t already receiving the maximum payment. That increased the benefits USDA pays out each month by 40 percent, or roughly $2 billion.
“These are unprecedented times for American families who are facing joblessness and hunger,” Agriculture Secretary Perdue said in a statement when USDA touted its benefits increases over the summer, adding: “Ensuring all households receive the maximum allowable SNAP benefit is an important part of President Trump’s whole of America response to the coronavirus.”
USDA also later announced it would bump up the maximum benefit levels by 5 percent in response to rising food costs.
While the increases were welcomed, even by the administration’s critics, anti-hunger advocates have argued the department should never have left off extremely low or no-income households during the crisis.
The legal fight over emergency benefits extends back to May when plaintiffs in California filed a class action lawsuit against USDA alleging the department was violating the law for excluding some 40 percent of SNAP recipients from the emergency payments.
The state of California is currently doling out some $250 million in emergency aid per month, according to court filings. Over the summer, a federal judge in the Northern District sided with USDA and did not order a preliminary injunction. The litigation is ongoing.
In July, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and law firm Morgan Lewis filed a similar class-action lawsuit against the department on behalf of Pennsylvanians who did not have access to increased food assistance during the pandemic because of USDA’s interpretation of the law.
Last month, U.S. District Judge John Milton Younge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued a preliminary injunction that blocked USDA from continuing to rely on its interpretation of the law, finding that it ran counter to Congress’ intent.