With Election Day 2020 growing ever closer, three recent cases from Pennsylvania, California, and the District of Columbia are illustrative of how the judicial branch is responding to emerging issues in food law and policy, especially with regard to food stamps. Federal court decisions have created expansions of the food safety net to meet the increased needs of American households during the pandemic.
Rates of food insecurity have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. Approximately one-quarter of American households are facing food insecurity, according to a recent Brookings Institution report. Unfortunately, racial and ethnic disparities in these measures have deepened, with food insecurity rates for Black and Hispanic households significantly higher than those of white households. Households with children are particularly affected, with more than 40 percent of mothers with young children reporting household food insecurity during the pandemic.
As part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act passed in March 2020, Congress provided for emergency allotments to households participating in the nation’s food stamp program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”). The law permitted the USDA, the agency administering SNAP, to grant states the ability to issue emergency allotments to households for the purpose of addressing “temporary food needs not greater than the applicable maximum monthly allotment for the household size.”
The USDA, subsequently, interpreted the law to mean that any household that already received the maximum monthly allotment for its size would not receive any additional emergency funds. Per the agency’s guidance, “SNAP households [were] not permitted to receive more than the maximum allotment.”
In effect, the agency’s action provided emergency allotments for the 60 percent of food stamp households who received less than the maximum allotment previously. But, the agency’s interpretation led to no additional allotments for the 40 percent of SNAP households who already received the maximum allotment for their household size. Put differently, the USDA’s policy determination meant that those households with little to no income—those who received the maximum food stamp allotments—would see no additional help under these emergency funds.
The states of Pennsylvania and California requested the ability to provide SNAP emergency allotments in excess of the household size. The agency denied both requests. Litigation ensued.
Two class action cases were filed in federal court, each asking for a preliminary injunction that would stop the USDA from denying each state’s request for additional funds for their poorest individuals on food stamps.
The court in the Pennsylvania action, Gilliam v. U.S. Dep’t. of Agriculture, No. 2:20-cv-3504, found the USDA’s position “illogical” and granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. According to the Gilliam court, the “USDA’s interpretation reads the word ‘emergency,’ and the phrase ‘emergency allotments,’ out of the statute or, at minimum, renders them meaningless and superfluous as to nearly half of Pennsylvania’s SNAP households who also happen to be in the most dire need of emergency assistance.” Further, the court found that the denial of additional funds to “the 40 percent or more of Pennsylvania’s SNAP households” with pre-COVID maximum household allotment levels would render such Congressionally intended “emergency allotments” “illusory and superfluous.” The government has entered a notice of appeal in this case.
Another case, Hall v. U.S. Dep’t. of Agriculture, No. 4:20-cv-3454-HSG, filed in the Northern District of California, came to the opposite conclusion. The Hall court concluded that the class action plaintiffs’ arguments had “persuasive force,” but declined to issue the preliminary injunction as “Congress, not the Court, is charged with determining how best to weigh and triage the needs of all Americans during this time of crisis, taking into account the budgetary costs and benefits of various policy choices.” The case is now on appeal before the Ninth Circuit, and oral argument was held on October 20, 2020. An appellate decision is forthcoming.
While Gilliam is on appeal, the Pennsylvania federal court has allowed the preliminary injunction to proceed without a stay. This means that Pennsylvanian households participating in SNAP may see increased allotments. For example, a family of four may see additional allotments of $340 per month. However, the USDA has warned that if the agency prevails on appeal, it will make the state pay back the additional allotments to the federal government.
The majority of SNAP participants are not expected to work, as they consist of groups outside the labor force, such as children, older individuals, and individuals with disabilities. The subset of SNAP participants known as able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWD) makes up less than 10 percent of all SNAP participants or about 2.8 million individuals.
SNAP recipients who meet the ABAWD definition have mandatory work or job training requirements. Waivers apply to certain areas with high unemployment or scarce local job opportunities. More than thirty states and the District of Columbia have enacted such waivers.
In recent months, the USDA finalized a rule that would have redefined these waivers and restricted jurisdictions’ ability to issue such exceptions to the work requirements applicable to ABAWD individuals. The rule was set to take effect April 1, 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Based on pre-pandemic estimates, the agency found that approximately 700,000 individuals would be cut off from food stamp benefits when the rule went into effect.
In March 2020, Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell of the District of Columbia’s federal court enjoined the agency from enacting its new work requirement rule, finding that it was “likely illegal.” The court noted that aid programs like SNAP were especially critical as a “global pandemic pose[d] widespread health risks.”
On October 18, 2020, Chief Judge Howell issued a 67-page opinion castigating the agency’s position and vacating the rule. The court found that the USDA’s rule “radically and abruptly alter[ed] decades of regulatory practice, leaving States scrambling and exponentially increasing food insecurity for tens of thousands of Americans.” Chief Judge Howell found the USDA’s rule and rulemaking process “arbitrary and capricious,” “contrary to law,” and “inadequately justified,” and wrote that “the backdrop of the pandemic has provided, in stark relief, [the rule’s] procedural and substantive flaws.”
In the run-up to the 2020 general election, Congress continues to debate additional coronavirus relief packages. More than 2,500 organizations have called for a 15 percent increase to SNAP benefits to meet the increased need due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The nation’s federal courts are also seeing challenges to new restrictions on the food safety net, and, during the pandemic, at least two courts have issued rulings denying such limitations as “illogical” or “contrary to law.”
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