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PRESS RELEASE: Settlement Reached with USDA to Provide Emergency Food Benefits to One Million California Households Most in Need

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Settlement comes ten months after lawsuit said denial of SNAP Emergency Allotments violated the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

SAN FRANCISCO, CA — Approximately one million California households will soon be permitted to receive emergency food benefits under new USDA guidance, thanks in part to the settlement of the lawsuit Hall v. U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was filed in the early months of the pandemic. Plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers are two Californians who were denied emergency food benefits authorized by Congress in March of 2020. In the lawsuit, Hall and Summers argued that USDA illegally denied them and other Californians emergency benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (aka SNAP — CalFresh in California), solely because they already received the maximum regular benefit allotment, which was $194 per month at the time.

“Even before the pandemic, I worked hard to stretch my monthly SNAP benefits to meet my food needs. The pandemic made it much harder to get regular meals,” said Hall. “This emergency assistance will be a huge help to me and many others. I feel so honored to fight for everyone like me. It means so much to me.”

After the emergency benefits were signed into law in March 2020, USDA published guidance denying emergency benefits to households receiving the maximum regular benefit, which are those with the lowest incomes. Both Hall and Summers are single adults in groups at high risk for complications from COVID-19, who struggled to maintain healthy diets during the pandemic but were denied emergency food assistance. They are represented by the Impact Fund and Western Center on Law & Poverty.

Under the terms of yesterday’s settlement, USDA agreed to immediately stop enforcing its guidance on emergency allotments as to California. The same day, USDA issued new guidance announcing a policy change to provide emergency allotments to all households enrolled in SNAP with minimum payments of $95 per month for each household.

“This settlement represents exactly what we were hoping to achieve here in California,” said Lindsay Nako, Impact Fund’s Director of Litigation and Training, who represented Hall and Summers. “USDA’s willingness to settle this lawsuit, as well as the steps the Biden Administration has taken to make emergency food aid available to people with the lowest incomes, is cause for optimism about the future of SNAP – in California and beyond.”

Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of 2020 in response to COVID-19; it was partially meant to address rising food insecurity and hunger by providing additional resources for SNAP recipients. Specifically, the Act authorized USDA to approve state requests for emergency allotments to households participating in SNAP. When California applied for the emergency aid, USDA initially denied the state’s request because it included benefits for those receiving the maximum regular benefit, which prompted the lawsuit. USDA did not approve California’s request until the state removed households receiving the maximum regular benefit.

Within days of President Biden’s inauguration, the White House issued an executive order and accompanying fact sheet that called on USDA to “[a]llow larger emergency [SNAP] allotments for the lowest-income households,” which would provide enhanced SNAP benefits to an additional 12 million people. The settlement and updated guidance mark a new path forward for USDA.

“We are pleased to see USDA turn the page toward making sure people who need help the most can get it,” said Alexander Prieto, a senior litigator for Western Center who represented the plaintiffs. “The past year has been incredibly hard for people with very low incomes. This settlement and USDA’s new guidance is a step in a different direction, and we hope for continued efforts to expand, rather than take away, vital safety net programs.”

People with very low incomes continue to face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the pandemic. They are less likely to have food reserves on hand and more likely to rely on food banks, free meal providers, and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended and under-resourced. By acknowledging those realities and providing additional aid so individuals and families can take care of their food needs, USDA is embarking on a more humane path forward for people who rely on its assistance.

“The outcome of this lawsuit counters the mythology that SNAP covers an entire food budget,” said Summers. “Households have to supplement what they receive even in normal times — just because you get the full amount doesn’t mean you are on easy street. Hopefully this lawsuit will be a reminder of this: not enough is not enough, no matter how much you receive. I hope this is a springboard for recognizing the shortcomings in SNAP and making more changes to combat hunger.”

Contact: Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org

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The Impact Fund provides strategic leadership and support for litigation to achieve economic and social justice. We provide funds for impact litigation in the areas of civil rights, environmental justice, and poverty law. We offer innovative technical support, training, and expertise on issues that arise in large scale impact litigation. We serve as lead counsel, co-counsel, and amicus counsel in select class action and impact litigation.

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice and system-wide change to secure housing, health care, racial justice and a strong safety net for Californians with low income. Western Center attains real-world, policy solutions for clients through litigation, legislative and policy advocacy, and technical assistance and legal support for the state’s legal aid programs. Western Center is California’s oldest and largest legal services support center.

Spring 2021 Federal and California COVID-19 Relief Actions

Between federal and state funding, Californians can expect help in different forms over the next few weeks, and likely beyond. Below you will find information about some of the money coming down for you or for programs you work with and/ or rely on.

 

DIRECT PAYMENTS, TAX CREDITS, CHILD CARE, & EMERGENCY FUNDS

  • The American Rescue Plan, signed by President Biden on March 11, 2021, provides $1,400 direct payments, which will go out immediately to about 159 million households. Checks will be a maximum of $1,400 per individual, or $2,800 per married couple, plus $1,400 per dependent.
    • Payments are based on your most recent tax return. Individuals who file taxes using an ITIN will not get a federal stimulus payment, but anyone filing with a Social Security Number will receive a payment.
    • Individuals earning up to $75,000 in adjusted gross income, heads of household with up to $112,500, and married couples filing jointly with up to $150,000 will get the full $1,400 per person.
    • The plan also includes $300 in bonus unemployment benefits until September 6th, and makes the first $10,200 of unemployment benefits nontaxable for those with incomes under $150,000 per year.
  • The American Rescue Plan also increases SNAP food benefits by 15% through September, and allocates $1 billion for the TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) Pandemic Emergency Fund. California will receive $203 million in TANF emergency funds that can be used for payments to families for non-recurring costs like rental debt or to provide housing assistance.
  • California has a separate $600 direct stimulus payment program, which will go out to 5.7 million Californians once their taxes are filed. Eligibility for the state stimulus includes:
    • Those who qualified for the state Earned Income Tax Credit on their 2020 tax returns (usually those making less than $30,000, and some undocumented and mixed-status families).
    • Individual Tax Identification Number (ITIN) holders who are excluded from federal stimulus checks and have incomes below $75,000.
    • Households enrolled in CalWorks, SSI/SSP recipients, and Cash Assistance Program for Immigrants (CAPI) recipients.
    • ITIN taxpayers who qualify for the California Earned Income Tax Credit will receive a total of $1,200.
  • The American Rescue Plan raises the maximum Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) for adults without children from $543 to $1,502.
  • The American Rescue Plan expands the child tax credit for one year. Previously, most families received up to $2000 in tax credits per child under age 17; under the new plan, most parents except the very highest earners will receive a $3600 payment for children 5 and under, and up to $3,000 for children between 6-17. This includes families without taxable income.
  • The American Rescue Plan temporarily increases the value of the child and dependent care tax credit, which currently covers 35% of care expenses up to $3,000 for one dependent or $6,000 for two or more dependents.
    • Overall, the plan provides $39 billion for child care through:
      • $15 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG).
      • $24 billion for newly created child care stabilization grants.

HEALTH

  • The American Rescue Plan provides $0 premiums for people enrolled in Covered California earning less than 150% of the federal poverty level or who claim unemployment anytime during 2021. It provides additional premium support for people who earn more, and forgives excess premium support given in 2020 that people would normally have to pay back.
  • The American Rescue Plan covers more of the state’s Medi-Cal costs, like home and community based services, and a 100% federal match for COVID-19 vaccines given by Medi-Cal.
  • The plan also provides a state option to extend postpartum Medicaid for 12 months instead of 60 days. California currently does this only for people diagnosed with a mental health condition within the 60 day postpartum period.

HOUSING

  • California received $2.6 billion in federal rental relief from the COVID-19 package passed in December 2020; those funds became available on March 15, 2021.
    • Renters who make under 80% of an area’s median income are eligible for rental assistance under California’s SB 91. Landlords must apply for the assistance, and agree to waive 20% of rent owed between April 1, 2020 and June 30, 2021 – the remaining 80% will be paid by government funds.
    • If a landlord refuses to participate, renters can still apply to have 25% of back rent paid.
    • Cities and counties may distribute rent relief funds differently.
  • The American Rescue Plan provides an additional $21.6 billion in emergency aid for renters with low-incomes who have lost income or are experiencing hardship from COVID-19 and at risk for eviction. The plan includes:
    • $5 billion for emergency housing vouchers to support those recently homeless or at risk of experiencing homelessness.
    • $750 million for tribal housing needs.
    • $100 million for rural households living in USDA-financed properties.

PRESS RELEASE: Court of Appeal Says California Must Replace Electronically Stolen Food Benefits

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Decision reverses lower court ruling; says Department of Social Services is responsible for replacing food benefits stolen from Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card holders

Los Angeles, CA — The California Court of Appeal has ruled that the Department of Social Services must replace CalFresh benefits (formerly “food stamps”) when they are electronically stolen from recipients. Attorneys with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) and Western Center on Law & Poverty represented plaintiffs Esther Ortega and Joe Soza, both of whom are recipients of CalFresh benefits who experienced electronic theft. Hunger Action Los Angeles, an organization working to end hunger and promote healthy eating through advocacy, direct service, and organizing, was also an organizational plaintiff in the case.

“This decision makes it clear that people don’t have to go hungry if through no fault of their own, their CalFresh benefits are stolen,” said Frank Tamborello, Executive Director of Hunger Action LA. “It’s especially critical during this pandemic, with hunger at an all-time high and electronic theft increasing.”

The Court of Appeal decision in Esther Ortega et al., v. Kimberley Johnson, et al. reverses a trial court decision that said the state is not responsible for replacing stolen benefits, and requires reversal of the California Department of Social Services’ previous denial of the plaintiffs’ requests for replacement benefits.

“It’s disappointing that a high-tech and food-abundant place like California has been failing to protect poor households against the electronic theft of food benefits, as existing regulations require,” said Andrew Kazakes, a LAFLA Staff Attorney who worked on the case. “This decision will bring welcome relief to victims of EBT skimming theft across the state, especially during the pandemic when the importance of food security is that much greater.”

Ms. Ortega and Mr. Soza both had their food benefits stolen by people who obtained their account numbers and PIN’s (Personal Identification Number) — a form of theft that has become increasingly common. The thieves made unauthorized transactions using their account information, and drained close to their entire monthly allotment of CalFresh benefits.

As electronic theft becomes more technologically sophisticated, more low-income Californians are left without essential anti-hunger food benefits, even when they protect their EBT cards and personal information. The result in this case will ensure that CalFresh recipients have their benefits replaced when they are stolen by electronic thieves, and that they don’t go hungry when they are victims of high-tech theft.

“What’s most striking is that the California Department of Social Services acknowledged that the plaintiffs were not at fault in the theft of their benefits, but still left them to bear the loss,” said Alexander Prieto, a Senior Attorney on the case for Western Center. “The Department knows that people’s benefits are being stolen electronically. It puts out notices and warnings; yet before this ruling, it ignored the requirement to ensure that victims of the crimes receive their crucial food benefits.”

California’s CalFresh rules protect electronic theft victims, but replacing benefits is optional under federal law, which ultimately governs CalFresh and similar programs in other states, even though the United States Department of Agriculture also knows the benefits are vulnerable to theft. “Hopefully this ruling sets the stage for a better federal model,” Prieto said.

The point of food assistance is to make sure people can eat. With California and the country both experiencing record levels of hunger, it’s vitally important for government to safeguard necessary food assistance for eligible recipients. This ruling is an important step for Californians who rely on CalFresh benefits to prevent hunger.

Read the Court of Appeal decision here.

 

Contact:

Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org

Sara J. Williams, sjwilliams[at]lafla.org

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About Hunger Action Los Angeles – Hunger Action Los Angeles (HALA) works to end hunger and promote healthy eating through advocacy, direct service, and organizing.

About Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles – Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (LAFLA) seeks to achieve equal justice for people living in poverty across Greater Los Angeles. LAFLA changes lives through direct representation, systems change and community empowerment. It has five offices in Los Angeles County, along with four Self-Help Legal Access Centers at area courthouses and three domestic violence clinics to aid survivors.

About Western Center on Law & Poverty – Through the lens of economic and racial justice, 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 low-income Californians.

 

 

 

 

EPIC News – October 2020

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Western Center’s Proposition Guide

With election day drawing near and Californians sending in ballots, we prepared a Proposition Guide to help you navigate complicated propositions on the 2020 ballot. Check out the full guide for a better understanding of Western Center’s position on each proposition.

Western Center policy advocate Jessica Bartholow wrote a blog post further explaining our YES position on Proposition 25 to end money bail.

And our staff attorney Helen Tran wrote a post explaining why she supports Proposition 16 to allow affirmative action in California, alongside Western Center and many other Asian Americans. “Many of us, including myself, were not of voting age in 1996 when Prop 209 was passed. Or, we might have voted for it without realizing its ramifications in the ensuing decades and during a global pandemic. We’ve arrived at a moment now and we should take it head on: vote Yes on Prop 16.”


Judge Denies Trump Administration’s Attempt to Take Food From Unemployed Adults

Over the weekend, a federal judge in the District of Columbia struck down an attempt by the Trump Administration to stop food benefits for nearly 700,000 people via changes to the SNAP Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (“ABAWD”) Time Limit rule. Western Center was part of the California team that submitted a brief which appears to have significantly shaped the judge’s decision. Read our joint statement about the rule and decision here. 


2020 California Legislative Roundup

In case you missed it, here’s Western Center’s roundup of the 2020 California Legislative session, which concluded on September 30th. The roundup includes our sponsored and co-sponsored bills that passed, and some we will bring back next year.

Because of COVID-19, the Legislature significantly narrowed the number of bills across issue areas this year, but we still saw important progress, including in the state budget — like the inclusion of immigrant ITIN tax filers in the California Earned Income Tax Credit (CalEITC) program, and the restoration of CalWORKs assistance from 48 months to the full 60 months permitted under federal law, beginning in 2022.

USDA’s Virus Food Aid Limits Harm Neediest, 9th Circ. Told

Alexander Prieto of the Western Center on Law and Poverty argued that an injunction is needed to ensure that 1 million of the poorest families will receive food aid to avoid going hungry during the “unprecedented pandemic.” …”Congress intended these benefits to be available to all households … That includes unambiguously all SNAP households,” he said.”

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Joint Statement: Federal Judge Strikes Down Trump Administration’s Attempt to Take Food Assistance from Hundreds of Thousands of Unemployed Americans

Yesterday, a federal judge in the District of Columbia struck down an attempt by the Trump Administration to stop food benefits for nearly 700,000 unemployed people referred to by the USDA as “Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents,” or “ABAWDs” in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In the decision for District of Columbia et al v. U.S. Department of Agriculture et al, which comes seven months after the same judge issued a temporary preliminary injunction halting part of the rule, Chief U.S. District Judge Beryl A. Howell called the USDA’s proposed rule “arbitrary and capricious,” particularly because the department failed to address the high number of people who would lose access to food, in the midst of a pandemic, if the dramatic rule change was implemented.

Impact Fund Staff Attorney David Nahmias wrote an excellent article in July with substantial background on the so-called “ABAWD Time Limit rule” and the Trump Administration/USDA’s quest to make the already tight restrictions even tighter, over the objections of tens of thousands of public commenters. The USDA’s new rule would have restricted state authority to provide waivers to the time limit for obtaining work for people who are unemployed and in need of food assistance. For the past two decades, states have been allowed to provide waivers according to the economic and employment situations in their state, which, as Judge Howell pointed out in her decision, is particularly precarious right now because of the pandemic. The USDA’s proposed rule was an attempt to take away state discretion in favor of a harsh one-size-fits-all rule that would have taken food aid away from hundreds of thousands of people who need it.

Due to the rule’s potential to negatively impact a high number of Californians, Western Center on Law & Poverty immediately began organizing against it upon its release in December 2018, which led to the submission of hundreds of opposition comments from California’s broader anti-poverty community. In November of 2019, Western Center advocates met with the Office of Management and Budget at the White House to reinforce our opposition to the rule and organized others to do the same.

In early 2020, Impact Fund and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman joined Western Center to watch and support the D.C. case. Over the summer, we led a coalition of twenty-nine legal and advocacy organizations to submit an Amicus Brief, which appears to have had a substantial impact on the overall outcome of the case – particularly regarding the discretionary exemptions statute, which we argued the USDA had right back in 1999. In her decision, Judge Howell agreed with our interpretation of that statute through explicit mention of the State Plaintiffs’ reply brief, which refers heavily to our Amicus Brief. We are very proud to have had a hand in such a significant decision.

It’s important that this attempt by the USDA to take food aid away from people who need it was struck down, but it’s also important to note that the ABAWD Time Limit rule would not exist if it wasn’t for the 1996 welfare “reform” bill, which has done significant harm to communities across the country and solidified racial and economic disparities – including making the process for obtaining food aid incredibly onerous for people already struggling with systemic poverty. Last year, California Representative Barbara Lee introduced H.R.2809 – the Improving Access to Nutrition Act of 2019, to end the SNAP ABAWD Time Limit rule altogether. Western Center helped craft and subsequently endorsed H.R.2809, which has strong support from California’s anti-hunger community.

Yesterday’s ruling on the SNAP ABAWD Time Limit rule is very welcome news in the face of an ongoing pandemic, record unemployment, civil unrest, and persistent racial injustice. It means hundreds of thousands of people in this country will continue to have access to the food they need in the middle of multiple crises. Now that the baseline is safeguarded, we must continue to push for a long term fix to inhumane SNAP food stamp rules like the ABAWD Time Limit rule.

 

For questions contact:

Courtney McKinney, Director of Communications, Western Center on Law & Poverty — cmckinney[at]wclp.org, (214) 395-2755

Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation & Training, Impact Fund — LNako[at]impactfund.org, (510) 845-3473 ext. 307

Erik Cummins, Senior PR Manager, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman — erik.cummins[at]pillsburylaw.com, (415) 217-9341

 

 

 

 

 

 

USDA’s COVID-19 Food Aid Limits Can Continue For Now

“But Alexander Baughan Prieto of the Western Center on Law & Poverty argued on behalf of the proposed class that the plain language of the statute suggests that Congress didn’t intend to restrict food aid to the neediest during the crisis, although he acknowledged that there is sparse legislative history in the record on lawmakers’ intent in drafting the emergency statute.”

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