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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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Federal Judge Denies Removal of Cap on Food Assistance Program Amid Pandemic

“At a hearing on the matter last week, attorney Alexander Prieto with the Western Center on Law & Poverty said the USDA’s interpretation of the FFCRA “seems to rest on the presumption that the max monthly allotment is sufficient in all circumstances, and that Congress assumed that was all that was necessary to put everyone up to the maximum monthly allotment.”

Pandemic Doesn’t Justify Lifting Cap on Food Stamps, Judge Rules

USDA’s COVID-19 Food Aid Limits May Be Right, Judge Says

“During the hearing on the motion Wednesday, Alexander Baughan Prieto of the Western Center on Law & Poverty argued on behalf of the proposed class that the agency’s limits are illogical and that they’re harming families most in need during this crisis.

He said Congress understood that some families were already receiving their maximum monthly allotment when lawmakers enacted the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Prieto said Congress also understood that food prices would rise and that there would be challenges to obtaining food during the pandemic.”

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PRESS RELEASE: Class Action Lawsuit Filed Against USDA For Denying Emergency Food Assistance To Californians With Greatest Need

   

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Lawsuit says USDA’s SNAP emergency allotment denials violate the Families First Coronavirus Response Act

SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is illegally denying emergency food aid to those most in need, according to a federal class action lawsuit filed today in San Francisco. Plaintiffs Robin Hall and Steven Summers represent a proposed class of Californians with the lowest incomes seeking an immediate injunction of USDA guidance that denies them emergency food assistance via the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, Calfresh in California). The plaintiffs and the class are represented by Western Center on Law & Poverty and the Impact Fund.

In response to the public health crisis presented by COVID-19, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in March of this year. The Act sought to address rising food insecurity and hunger with significant additional resources for SNAP recipients. Specifically, the Act authorized USDA to issue additional payments to all households currently receiving SNAP benefits, which states must apply for. When California applied for the emergency aid, USDA denied the additional benefits for individuals and families already receiving the regular maximum allotment, or in other words, those with the least income.

“The cost of food has increased across the United States and here in California during the pandemic,” says Alexander Prieto, a senior litigator for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “The idea that people who were already struggling to get by before the crisis should not receive the additional help being granted to other SNAP recipients is cruel and absurd. It goes against the intent of the Families First Act, which is why we are seeking relief for our clients.”

The complaint alleges that USDA is illegally denying emergency food aid to the poorest households in California, and seeks to stop USDA from preventing California from providing emergency allotments for the plaintiffs and others in the class.

Both plaintiffs, Robin Hall and Steven Summers, are single adults in high risk groups for complications from COVID-19, who have been denied emergency food benefits. Both have decreased access to food due to the pandemic.

People with very low incomes, like Ms. Hall and Mr. Summers, face the greatest risk of hunger and food insecurity during the COVID crisis. They are less likely to have food reserves on hand to avoid frequent grocery trips, and more likely to rely on food banks, free meal providers, and other emergency channels for food distribution, which are currently overextended, under-resourced, or closed altogether.

“I’m using what savings I have to try to keep up with these rising food costs. After that, there isn’t enough left to pay rent and utilities,” says Mr. Summers. “If I’m having a hard time, I know others are too. We can’t control what this pandemic is doing to the cost of living, with all that’s going on, we need expanded benefits to help with the rising cost of everything, including food.”

One of the most immediate and urgent problems arising from the pandemic is hunger. Food prices are higher, many food staples are scarce, and shelter-in-place orders make food less accessible, particularly for those most vulnerable to the health risks of the coronavirus.

“We are simply asking USDA to do the right thing,” said Lindsay Nako, Director of Litigation and Training at Impact Fund. “The federal government has a responsibility to make sure people in this country do not go hungry during this pandemic. USDA needs to do its part.”

The complaint can be read here.

 

Contact:

Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org

Teddy Basham-Witherington, twitherington[at]impactfund.org

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About The Impact Fund

We provide 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.

About Western Center on Law & Poverty
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 low-income Californians. 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.

 

As Jobless Claims Soar, More Restaurants Might Finally Be Able to Accept SNAP Benefits

“In a letter on April 2, Sen. Murphy called on USDA director Sonny Perdue to expand RMP participation to all SNAP recipients until the end of the COVID-19 emergency. So has the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which has advocated for SNAP RMP expansion for over a decade. But the USDA hasn’t budged. “It’s a failure to lead in a time of crisis,” says Jessica Bartholow, a WCLP policy advocate.

Now Murphy and Panetta hope to legislate the solution. The National Restaurant Association, the National Council of Chain Restaurants, and Congressional Hunger Center have all expressed support. “This is a private-public partnership that works,” says Bartholow. “We have food rotting in restaurants and workers that want to work and can’t.”

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