A proposed class action alleges the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has unlawfully narrowed the eligibility of Pennsylvania residents for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) emergency allotments provided amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Echoing a lawsuit filed May 22 in California, the 31-page case alleges that while the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) requires USDA Secretary George Ervin Perdue III to provide emergency food stamp allotments for all households receiving SNAP benefits given the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, the USDA has issued “arbitrary and capricious” guidance that makes emergency allotments unavailable to households that already receive maximum monthly benefits.
Further, the USDA’s guidance over which the case was filed has prevented state SNAP administrators, including the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services (PADHS), from providing emergency food stamp allotments to the households whose incomes are the lowest, and who therefore usually receive the most in SNAP benefits.
“In Pennsylvania,” the complaint says, “the USDA’s guidance results in the exclusion of nearly 40% of SNAP recipients from emergency SNAP allotments, including many elderly people, families with young children, and people with disabilities, in direct violation of the law.”
The plaintiffs, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia residents, argue the USDA’s guidance has improperly interpreted “emergency allotments” of SNAP benefits authorized by the FFCRA as similar to “supplements” purportedly authorized under a section of the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 (FNA) that are unavailable to households already receiving the maximum SNAP benefits. According to the case, the USDA provides no explanation for its invocation of the FNA, adding that the section of the 2008 law at issue does not authorize “supplements,” but rather “emergency allotments” to be made available to all SNAP-receiving households, regardless of their regular SNAP benefits, “to replace food destroyed by a disaster.”
Further, the lawsuit contests the USDA’s SNAP emergency allotment interpretation amid the pandemic fails to account for the fact that an aim of the FFCRA was to raise nutrition levels among low-income households during the public health emergency. According to the complaint, the USDA’s guidance shows no indication that the USDA considered that its interpretation of the FFCRA denied emergency subsistence benefits for and thereby decreased the level of nutrition among the lowest-income households. In issuing its guidance, the USDA effectively frustrated the purpose of SNAP while providing emergency allotment benefits to households with relatively higher incomes, the case says.
“USDA’s guidance is contrary to law because it contradicts the unambiguous language of and effects a fundamental change in the FFCRA,” the suit claims, reiterating that the USDA got it wrong by capping households’ overall SNAP benefits at pre-pandemic levels “despite the drastic change in circumstances.”
To be eligible to receive SNAP benefits, a household’s net annual income must generally be at or below the federal poverty level, the case says. In Pennsylvania in 2020, the suit continues, the federal poverty level equates to an individual income of $12,760, or $26,000 for a family of four. Under SNAP, the maximum benefit for a household of one person would be $194 per month, or $2.08 per meal in a 31-day month, the lawsuit calculates, with a minimum benefit of $16 per month for households of one or two with higher incomes.
The maximum monthly SNAP benefit for a family of four is $646 for a 31-day month, or $161.50 per month for each member of the family, according to the lawsuit.
Under the USDA’s guidance, however, a household of one person with an entire budget of $2.08 per meal each month “receives no additional funds at all during the pandemic,” the case argues, while a household of one with considerably higher income that qualifies for the minimum SNAP benefit of $16 per month is able to receive an emergency allotment of $178 per month for their temporary food needs.
The lawsuit looks to cover all Pennsylvania residents who are, were or will be eligible for SNAP benefits during the period in which Congress has authorized the issuance of emergency allotment, or are receiving, have received or will receive a smaller emergency allotment than Congress intended due to the USDA’s improper interpretation of the FFCRA.
ClassAction.org’s coverage of COVID-19 litigation can be found here and over on our Newswire.