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Western Center on Law and Poverty and Impact Fund Secure Momentous Win for Over 40 Million SNAP Recipients

For Immediate Release

September 21, 2023

Contacts: Monika Lee, [email protected]

Ashley LaFranchi, [email protected] 

Western Center on Law and Poverty and Impact Fund Secure Momentous Win for 40 Million SNAP Recipients

California – Millions of Americans with low incomes will now receive their food benefits without delay during the first month of a potential federal government shutdown, thanks to the government’s response to a nationwide class action brought by Western Center on Law and Poverty and Impact Fund. The USDA has committed to changing its accounting practice to now guarantee that over 40 million people will receive their SNAP benefits in October, beginning this year and continuing every year moving forward – regardless of a government shutdown. 

Previously, in the face of a government shutdown, benefits were only guaranteed through September, the end of the federal government’s fiscal year. This meant that each year people were unsure if they would receive life saving and hunger averting benefits unless Congress passed a budget.

SNAP recipients, represented by Western Center on Law and Poverty and the Impact Fund, filed suit in federal court in San Francisco on September 12, 2023, against the heads of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The suit, Erdmann-Browning v. Vilsack, seeks to prevent any delays in providing SNAP (formerly food stamps) benefits if the government shuts down. Congress has still not passed a series of appropriations bills or a continuing resolution funding the government ahead of the September 30th deadline.

On September 19, the parties filed papers in court stating that the USDA has changed its accounting practices so that it funds benefits in advance of the month the benefits are available to households. This means that the existing SNAP appropriation was already available to fund the October SNAP benefits. This change is consistent with the federal definition of when federal funds are legally obligated.

Congressional political games continue to harm millions of people. The latest numbers from the Census Bureau show a staggering jump in poverty since the end of federal, state, and local pandemic protections. The poverty rate increased to 12.4 percent in 2022 up from 7.8 percent in 2021, “the largest one-year jump on record.” A combination of inflation, stagnated wages, increasing housing costs, and the end of pandemic era cash supplements has exacerbated the challenges people with low incomes face to make ends meet.  

“Today, we celebrate this important victory for over 40 million Americans who will now rest easy knowing their October benefits are guaranteed for the first time ever. However, we keep finding ourselves in this precarious situation year over year,” said Jodie Berger, senior attorney at Western Center on Law and Poverty. “It is important that every advocate, non-profit, food bank, elected official, and agency join hands to underscore the importance of food access and nutrition for the health, well-being, and more of our communities.” 

“Millions of Americans, many of whom are seniors, children, and people with disabilities, will now have a better sense of where their next meal is coming from this October. Food insecurity, lack of access to food, and hunger are preventable, as we saw during the height of the pandemic when policymakers moved swiftly to protect people,” said Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation and Training at the Impact Fund. “Elected officials must move with speed and urgency again, because hunger is already at crisis levels and food banks continue to be overwhelmed.” 

The work is not yet over. Stalemates in Congress and extended negotiations will continue to impact over 40 million SNAP recipients who represent about 10% of Americans, who face uncertainty this November and in subsequent months if Congress does not pass a series of appropriations bills or a continuing resolution.

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The Impact Fund uses impact litigation to support communities seeking justice and provides legal support for lawyers through grants, advocacy, and training events. For more information, visit www.impactfund.org

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice. For more information, visit www.wclp.org.

Class Action Lawsuit: Over 40 Million Americans at Risk of Hunger if Federal Government Fails to Act

For Immediate Release

September 13, 2023

Contacts: Monika Lee, [email protected]

Teddy Basham-Witherington, [email protected]

Class Action Lawsuit: 42 Million Americans at Risk of Hunger if Federal Government Fails to Act

California – Western Center on Law and Poverty and Impact Fund have filed a class action lawsuit against the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to prevent a delay in providing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to over 40 million Americans. 

Congress must pass either appropriation bills or a “continuing resolution” to temporarily continue federal funding by September 30th, or else the federal government will shut down. 

The lawsuit asserts that the USDA should exercise available strategies to order the continuation of the SNAP benefits, while Congress works on passage of the funding bills. 

SNAP serves low-wage working families, low-income seniors, and people with disabilities living on fixed incomes, providing benefits only to those whose net income is below the federal poverty level. The most recent USDA demographic data shows that 65% percent of SNAP participant households live in families with children, with 11 percent of the families receiving need-based cash aid; 36% are in households with members who are seniors or are disabled; and 41% are in households with low-wage. 

Since the end of federal COVID pandemic SNAP emergency benefits, advocates are seeing millions of families hitting a hunger cliff, overwhelming food banks with increased demand. Millions of people are eating less or are going hungry, impacting their physical and mental health, education, and employment. 

One plaintiff has multiple sclerosis and can no longer work. She and her family use the majority of their income to stay in motels to avoid living on the streets. When money runs out, they live in their van, which requires saving additional funds to buy ice for her medication that needs to be kept cool. She is entirely reliant on CalFresh, Californian’s version of SNAP,  for her family’s food. Without CalFresh, she and her family will go hungry. 

The second plaintiff is a young woman who recently found housing after two years of homelessness. She searched for and found a job, but without a four-year degree, could not earn enough to afford housing. She works as a part-time preschool teacher, going to college to increase her earning capacity. She receives CalFresh, which is crucial to her being able to meet her food needs, as her basic monthly expenses leave slim funds for food. 

Both plaintiffs would go hungry if their benefits are suspended, and fear that food banks and meal centers will be overwhelmed as all CalFresh recipients will similarly be seeking those services. Their stories will become even more common without action by the USDA and other agencies. 

With the filing of this case, the courts can issue a temporary restraining order to require the defendants to continue operation of the SNAP program and get benefits released to the 42 million Americans in need. 

“It’s unconscionable that Congress would allow partisan fighting to get in the way of 42 million Americans putting food on their tables,” said Jodie Berger, senior attorney at Western Center on Law and Poverty. “The USDA must ensure SNAP recipients do not experience gaps in benefits regardless of any impending government shutdown. Children should not go to bed hungry, and people should not have to choose between paying rent and eating. The neediest people living in the richest country in the world deserve to have food on the table.” 

“Food justice spans economic, environmental, racial, and social justice. Every agency and Congress person must take responsibility and accountability for the 42 million lives in their hands,” said Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation and Training at The Impact Fund. “This case is about each and every one of the individuals, families, seniors, and people with disabilities who rely on SNAP to survive.” 

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The Impact Fund uses impact litigation to support social justice for communities seeking justice and provides legal support for lawyers through grants, co-counsel and training events. For more information, visit https://www.impactfund.org/ 

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care, and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes, through the lens of economic and racial justice. For more information, visit www.wclp.org.

The CalFresh Hunger Games: Free falling into food insecurity with no rescue in sight.

“For politicians our hunger is a game, they want to see you starve to death before they help and say, ‘I saved these people’s lives and I took action to stop hunger in our community,’” Jesus Zavala reflects. Jesus Zavala and Alicia Zavala are both retired seniors living in East Los Angeles. They are also my parents. And after working in difficult environments their entire lives, I had hoped they could settle into an easy retirement. Instead, they have faced hardship, including constant food instability in recent years, an uneasy retirement.

 

Before coming to the United States, my father and mother worked the fields of Alta and Baja California. When they moved here with my grandfather, who came to the U.S through the Bracero Program after World War II ended, my parents naturally found work throughout the Imperial Valley right over the border from Mexico. Eventually they migrated north to the neighborhood of Boyle Heights in Los Angeles where they have lived ever since.

 

Like many retirees, my parents were hit hard during the COVID-19 pandemic which exacerbated existing economic inequity. During the pandemic, they rushed to sign up for SNAP/CalFresh. Thanks to this cushion of federally funded emergency allotments, they have managed to get by.

 

According to the U.S Department of Agriculture over 80% of SNAP beneficiaries across the country are working class families, people with disabilities, or seniors. Individual SNAP recipients on average received around $100 dollars while families received benefits based on their household size during the pandemic.

 

Although the federal government has extended the public health emergency until early May, it has stopped all funding for food stamps that began during the COVID-19 pandemic.

 

As of March 2023, food benefit amounts are now based on household income rather than the size of a household. This means that right now these federal funding cuts to CalFresh are tearing through the food security of nearly 3 million households in our state. 

 

“We lost $160 in food benefits, which leaves us with $250 to eat for the rest of March,” shares Alicia. She is a retired Teamster School Bus Driver. She smiles as she greets the adversity she is sharing with the hope and grit you find in strong union mujeres.

 

Jesus adds, “Picture this… we get around $1,900 collectively from Social Security, our mortgage is around $1,700 that leaves us with $200 cash to survive with, plus car payments, car insurance, gas, and other expenses that we all know too well.” He has worked on classic cars since he arrived in Los Angeles. He learned the trade of building muscle car engines under direction of famed hot-rodder John Geraghty.

 

He continues “At this point I have knee issues, it’s difficult to work the same way I did 30 years ago and even if I could work on classic cars on the side, the government would automatically take any current food benefits I have. It’s a lose-lose situation.”

 

More changes to SNAP programs are sure to come when the federal public health emergency ends on May 11, 2023, especially with SNAP benefits being eyed for potential federal cuts in the ongoing debt limit debate in Congress.

 

While politics are at play on the national scene, in our state there are some legislative efforts forming to respond. A bill was introduced in the California legislature on February 15 that would establish a minimum benefit in the CalFresh program by January 2025.

 

Jesus and Alicia are getting by with a tight budget. They budget in the face of rising inflation where prices on milk, eggs, and bread are skyrocketing. For them community driven food banks have been a blessing. “This is the reality for many Californians, we are doing our best to get by, our neighbors who are also retired are in a similar situation, others we know live in a house or apartment where multiple families are living in under one roof, it is the only way to survive, but we are running out of time,” says Jesus. 

 

For many time has run out, these are difficult times for far too many people in California whether we are talking about the unhoused, low-income, people of color  or working-class communities. Californians are falling off a hunger cliff at this very moment and there are no permanent policy solutions to address the food insecurity many in our state are facing.  

 

As the contradictions of today’s financialized capitalist system unravel, we must imagine new ways to address this persistent economic bifurcation of a state of prosperity and a state of precariousness.We must address the growing gap between rich and poor that continues to spread under the contagion of monopoly-finance capital. 

 

Make no mistake the gilded facade of California is peeling, and we can not sweep the flakes under the rug. Californians in poverty need a New Deal, and they need it now. 

Hunger Relief Heroes Ensure Most Vulnerable Households Receive Critical Food Benefits

Three years out from the beginning of the COVID 19 pandemic, it easy to forget what it was like before vaccines when we worried about food shortages, long lines at the grocery store, washing the stuff you brought home from the store, or even if it was safe to leave our homes. In 2020, I worked at an online retailer and I was returning to that job but not until May. I needed a gig in the interim. Through my volunteer advocacy with the Food Bank, I got a contract job helping to organize an event called Hunger Action Day. I had just started when Covid hit and everything went into lockdown and shelter in place.

The event was canceled and without income, I applied for unemployment and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. I lived on my savings till those came through.

Congress passed relief measures to support people like me who were out of work due to the pandemic, increasing unemployment for example. Congress also authorized increased food benefits called Emergency Allotments for people on SNAP to help with the financial uncertainty and higher food prices. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture undermined this relief by saying that Emergency Allotments were only available to round people’s food benefits up to the maximum amount for their household size. That meant that people with little or no income, like me, who were already receiving the maximum would not get any additional help.

When I learned what the USDA did, I was angry and frustrated for a moment. Angry that it was unfair and frustrated knowing it’s just so typical of those who’ve made it their mission to attack safety net programs, especially SNAP. There’s so much dis-information about SNAP out there. Maybe the worst of myth is that SNAP covers a person’s food budget for the month for them or their family. It surely does not. People were receiving the maximum amount of SNAP because they needed it and qualified for it. And they needed the additional Emergency Allotments because of the pandemic—to deal with food shortages, higher prices, long lines, and living in lockdown—regardless of the amount of regular SNAP they were receiving. In those days, just being able to access food had a cost to it. But despite overwhelming bipartisan support for Emergency Allotments, the USDA and the Trump Administration were thwarting the intent of the COVID relief passed by Congress. They were playing politics with people’s hunger.

That is why I decided to take a stand and together with my co-plaintiff Robin Hall sue the USDA to make Emergency Allotments available for everyone. I first had to rely on CalFresh as a result of the Great Recession in 2008 and spending 2009 homeless. In my post-homeless life, for a number of years I was a volunteer at the Food Bank. I worked with a group of volunteers from the community all with some experience with food insecurity, who would advocate mostly on the policy side on hunger and poverty issues. That work was very gratifying and there were many successes. Things stayed shut down for months, when they came back, they came back slowly and different from what they were. I was thinking about how I could continue somehow as an anti-hunger advocate when the opportunity to participate in our lawsuit with the Western Center on Law & Poverty and The Impact Fund.

READ MORE

What Happens Next With Trump’s Food Benefit Cuts

“The food benefits rule finalized last week reduces states’ authority to set their own eligibility standards for the subset of SNAP beneficiaries who don’t have children and aren’t disabled.

“It’s pretty clear that the president acted outside of his authority,” said Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. ”

Read more 

 

Western Center Submits Comments Opposing Third Rule Change Proposal for SNAP Eligibility

The 60-day comment period has ended for the third set of proposed cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) from the Trump Administration. This proposed change to the SNAP Standard Utility Allowance methodology could impact up to 25% of the SNAP caseload in California, reducing their benefit.

Below is an excerpt from the comments we submitted; full comments can be read here.

The Proposed Rule Will Increase Hunger and Cause Permanent Harm
We disagree with the Food and Nutrition Services’ (FNS’) proposal to establish standard amounts for SUAs, which would reduce SNAP benefits for 25 percent of participating California households or about 572,000 households, according to FNS’ own estimates. In total, nationwide, FNS estimates the SNAP program would be cut by $4.478 billion in the next five years. This drastic reduction in benefits would expose people who are living in poverty to more hunger, poorer health, fewer opportunities for economic mobility, and worst outcomes in the major determinants of a person’s well-being.