Trump fights in court to block pandemic food aid for lowest-income Americans
The Trump administration is fighting in federal court to prevent states from giving billions of dollars in emergency food tokens to lowest-income Americans during the coronavirus crisis.
Pennsylvania and California residents have sued President Donald Trump's Department of Agriculture over policies that have prevented approximately 40 percent of households dependent on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from receiving emergency benefits during the pandemic. The department continues to appeal after a federal judge ordered the department last week to proceed with payments on the Pennsylvania case.
The Department of Agriculture says it is just following the law. A spokesman noted that a California court recently ruled USDA on a procedural matter.
Critics say the Trump administration is trying to return to its pre-Covid mission of downsizing safety net programs, even as economists warn that more help is needed for businesses and millions of households who are newly unemployed, lagging behind and below rent Have difficulty buying groceries.
"It's almost like they're singing the old song 'Wishin' and 'Hopin' because they're not dealing with reality," said Ellen Vollinger, legal director at USDA's Food Research & Action Center.
According to a POLITICO analysis of court records, USDA policy has already kept around $ 480 million in food aid out of Pennsylvania, a state suffering from a particularly high unemployment rate and a must-see for Trump to re-elect.
The litigation centers on how USDA interpreted the language in the nearly $ 200 billion Families First Coronavirus Response Act, one of the major relief packages that Congress passed in March.
The law requires the USDA to grant state requests for emergency allocation distribution from SNAP while both the federal government and the state are subject to an emergency declaration due to Covid-19. However, there is disagreement about how the requirement should be implemented.
The law states that the emergency payment cannot exceed the existing maximum benefit levels for SNAP, thresholds set by the size and income level of a household. The USDA understood this to mean that households that already receive the maximum level of benefits every month before the pandemic - because they have little to no household income - are not entitled to emergency payments.
Instead of making emergency payments to all SNAP households, the USDA decided to bring all households to the maximum payment level. For a family of three, the maximum is $ 535 per month, which is roughly $ 2 per meal per person.
"The USDA's position is consistent with the intent of Congress and the actual language adopted by Congress," a department spokesman said in an email.
A low-income person who may have previously received $ 20 a month in SNAP benefits may receive nearly 10 times the USDA guidelines, while another low-income person who typically receives $ 204 a month has not recorded any increase.
"It's cruel that the USDA interpreted it so unfairly," said Kathy Fisher, political director with the Coalition Against Hunger in Philadelphia.
Anti-hunger advocates say that Congress is clearly designed to ensure that all SNAP recipients receive emergency grants, and that the maximum amounts only apply to the emergency benefit, not the total benefit for a given month.
Any household that qualifies for SNAP is already barely getting by and is particularly at risk during an abrupt recession, proponents say. For example, in Pennsylvania, the gross income limit for a family of three to qualify for SNAP is just over $ 2,300 per month, or approximately $ 28,000 per year. A full-time minimum wage worker in the state could make just $ 7.25 an hour, or about $ 15,080 a year.
The USDA allowed states to increase assistance to millions of households whose incomes were so high that they were not already receiving the maximum payment. This increased monthly USDA payouts by 40 percent, or around $ 2 billion.
"These are unprecedented times for American families facing unemployment and starvation," Agriculture Secretary Perdue said in a statement when the USDA announced its performance increases over the summer to President Trump's response to the coronavirus across America. "
Agriculture Minister Sonny Perdue.
USDA also later announced it would increase maximum benefit levels by 5 percent in response to rising food costs.
Although the increases themselves were welcomed by the government's critics, anti-hunger advocates have argued that the department should never have stopped extremely low or low-income households during the crisis.
The emergency benefits litigation dates back to May when plaintiffs in California filed a class action lawsuit against the USDA alleging the division violated the law by banning around 40 percent of SNAP recipients from emergency payments.
According to court records, the state of California is currently distributing around $ 250 million in emergency aid a month. During the summer, a federal judge in the northern district sided with the USDA and did not order a restraining order. The litigation is still ongoing.
In July, Philadelphia Community Legal Services and law firm Morgan Lewis filed a similar class action lawsuit against the department on behalf of Pennsylvanians who were unable to access increased food aid during the pandemic due to the USDA's interpretation of the law.
Last month, US District Judge John Milton Younge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued an injunction preventing the USDA from continuing to rely on its interpretation of the law and found it to be contrary to the intentions of Congress.
The USDA has repeatedly asked the court to overturn the restraining order. A federal judge in Philadelphia last week issued a ruling accusing the USDA of essentially violating its restraining order - calling it an act of "outrageous disobedience."
The next day, the department announced it would make the additional emergency payments in Pennsylvania for the month of October, which meant recipients there would receive an additional $ 59 million.
The food stamp battle, which has intensified in the final days of the presidential election, comes from the failure of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin to reach an agreement in time to provide another aid package before November 3rd to adopt.
But the government is not giving up its fight against additional aid to millions of households, even in a battlefield state days before an election. USDA lawyers appealed to the Third Circuit last week, warning that the department will repay the aid to Keystone State if they are able to overturn the earlier order.
"This reimbursement would not come from individual SNAP households," it says in the file.
A USDA spokesman said if the plaintiffs were successful, it would "deplete the funds allocated by Congress for these additional COVID benefits and result in a reduction in SNAP benefits for every SNAP beneficiary across the country." Judge Younge recently called the threat "a straw man argument based on a dubious premise". The SNAP benefits have never been rationed due to a lack of resources, and Congress has a long history of fully funding the program, regardless of which party is in control.
A significant amount of money is at stake at both the individual low-income household and macro levels. Economists consider SNAP perks to be one of the fastest ways to put money into the local economy, as virtually all of the perks are spent within a month of being issued.
Department of Agriculture economists have estimated that every $ 1 spent on food aid during a downturn translates into about $ 1.50 in economic activity.
In Pennsylvania, state officials have developed a plan for allocating emergencies to households that were previously ineligible. Under the plan, a four-person household would receive an additional allocation of $ 340 per month.
Groups in Pennsylvania are also calling for repayments through March, a request worth nearly half a billion dollars that would be distributed among hundreds of thousands of low-income households. The court has not yet decided whether retroactive payments are warranted.
"In the meantime," said Vollinger, an anti-hunger lawyer with FRAC. "People don't get the help they need."
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