Trump fights in court to block pandemic food aid for lowest-income Americans

Critics say the Trump administration is trying to return to its pre-Covid mission of shrinking safety net programs.

10/27/2020 1:40:00 AM

The Trump administration is fighting in federal court to block states from giving billions of dollars in emergency food stamps to the lowest-income Americans during the coronavirus crisis

Critics say the Trump administration is trying to return to its pre-Covid mission of shrinking safety net programs.

By10/26/2020 03:24 PM EDTLink CopiedThe Trump administration is fighting in federal court to block states from giving billions of dollars in emergency food stamps to the lowest-income Americans during the coronavirus crisis.Residents of Pennsylvania and California have sued President Donald Trump’s Agriculture Department over a policy that has kept roughly 40 percent of households who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program from receiving any emergency benefits during the pandemic. After being ordered by a federal judge last week to proceed with the payments in the Pennsylvania case, the department is continuing to appeal.

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The Agriculture Department says that it’s simply following the law. A spokesperson noted that a California court recently sided with USDA on a procedural matter.Critics say the Trump administration is trying to return to its pre-Covid mission of shrinking safety net programs, even as economists warn more help is needed for businesses and millions of households that are newly unemployed, behind on rent and struggling to buy food.

President Donald Trump delivers remarks at a rally during the last full week of campaigning. | Spencer Platt/Getty Images“It’s almost like they’re singing that old song ‘Wishin’ and Hopin’,’ because they’re not dealing with reality,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director at the Food Research & Action Center, of USDA.

The USDA’s policy has already kept roughly $480 million in nutrition assistance out of just Pennsylvania, a state that’s suffered a particularly high unemployment rate and also is a must-win for Trump in his bid for reelection, according to a POLITICO analysis of court filings.

The legal dispute centers on how USDA has interpreted language in the nearly $200 billion Families First Coronavirus Response Act, one of the big aid packages Congress passed in March.The law requires USDA to grant state requests to distribute emergency allotments of SNAP as long as both the federal government and the state are under an emergency declaration due to Covid-19. But there’s disagreement about how to implement the requirement.

The law says the emergency payment can’t be higher than existing maximum benefit levels for SNAP, thresholds that are set by the size and income level of a household. USDA has taken this to mean that households already receiving the maximum benefit level each month before the pandemic — because they have little to no household income — are not eligible for any emergency payments.

Instead of giving all SNAP households emergency payments, USDA decided to bring all households up to the maximum payment levels. For a family of three, the maximum is $535 per month, which comes out to about $2 per meal per person."USDA’s position is consistent with congressional intent and the language Congress actually passed," a department spokesperson said in an email.

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One low-income individual who previously might have been getting $20 per month in SNAP benefits could be getting nearly 10 times that under USDA’s policy, while another low-income person who typically gets $204 per month has seen no increase whatsoever.

“It’s cruel that USDA interpreted it in such an inequitable way,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Coalition Against Hunger in Philadelphia.Anti-hunger advocates say Congress clearly intended for all SNAP recipients to receive emergency allotments and that the maximums only apply to the emergency benefit, not the total benefits for a given month.

Any household that qualifies for SNAP is already barely making ends meet and is particularly at risk during an abrupt recession, advocates say. In Pennsylvania, for example, the gross income limit for a family of three to qualify for SNAP is just over $2,300 per month, or roughly $28,000 per year. A full-time minimum wage worker in the state could earn as little as $7.25 an hour, or about $15,080 per year.

The USDA did allow states to boost assistance for millions of households whose incomes were high enough that they weren’t already receiving the maximum payment. That increased the benefits USDA pays out each month by 40 percent, or roughly $2 billion.

“These are unprecedented times for American families who are facing joblessness and hunger,” Agriculture Secretary Perdue said in a statement when USDA touted its benefits increases over the summer, adding: “Ensuring all households receive the maximum allowable SNAP benefit is an important part of President Trump’s whole of America response to the coronavirus.”

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. | J. Scott Applewhite/AP PhotoUSDA also laterannouncedit would bump up the maximum benefit levels by 5 percent in response to rising food costs.While the increases were welcomed, even by the administration’s critics, anti-hunger advocates have argued the department should never have left off extremely low or no-income households during the crisis.

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The legal fight over emergency benefits extends back to May when plaintiffs in Californiafiled a class action lawsuit against USDAalleging the department was violating the law for excluding some 40 percent of SNAP recipients from the emergency payments.

The state of California is currently doling out some $250 million in emergency aid per month, according to court filings. Over the summer, a federal judge in the Northern District sided with USDA and did not order a preliminary injunction. The litigation is ongoing.

In July, Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and law firm Morgan Lewis filed a similar class-action lawsuit against the department on behalf of Pennsylvanians who did not have access to increased food assistance during the pandemic because of USDA’s interpretation of the law.

Last month, U.S. District Judge John Milton Younge of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania issued a preliminary injunction that blocked USDA from continuing to rely on its interpretation of the law, finding that it ran counter to Congress’ intent.USDA has repeatedly asked the court to set aside the injunction. A federal judge in Philadelphia last week issued a decision accusing USDA of essentially flouting its injunction order — calling it an act of “egregious disobedience.”

The next day, the department said it would issue the additional emergency payments in Pennsylvania for the month of October, which meant recipients there would be getting an extra $59 million.The fight over food stamps, which is heating up in the final days of the presidential election, comes as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have failed to come to an agreement in time to pass another aid package before November 3.

But the administration is not giving up its fight against the additional aid for millions of households, even in a battleground state just days ahead of an election. Attorneys for USDA last week appealed to the Third Circuit and warned that if they are able to vacate the earlier injunction, the department will make the Keystone State pay the aid back.

“This reimbursement would not come from individual SNAP households,” the filing noted.A spokesperson for USDA said if the plaintiffs are successful it would "exhaust the funds appropriated by Congress for these additional COVID benefits and result in a SNAP benefit cut for every SNAP beneficiary nationwide." Judge Younge recently called this threat "a straw man argument resting on a dubious premise." SNAP benefits have never been rationed due to a lack of resources and Congress has a long history of fully funding the program regardless of which party is in control.

There is a significant amount of money on the line, both at the individual low-income household level as well as the macro-level. Economists consider SNAP benefits one of the quickest ways to infuse money into local economies because virtually all of the benefits are spent within a month of being issued.

Agriculture Department economists have estimated that every $1 spent on nutrition assistance during a downturn, there’s about $1.50 of economic activity that results.In Pennsylvania, state officials have outlined a plan for getting emergency allotments to households that haven’t previously been eligible. Under the plan, a four-person household would receive an additional allotment of $340 each month.

Groups in Pennsylvania are also seeking back payments going all the way to March, a request worth nearly half a billion dollars that would be spread across hundreds of thousands of low-income households. The court has not yet decided whether retroactive payments are warranted.

"In the meantime," said Vollinger, an anti-hunger advocate at FRAC. "People are not getting the help that they need." Read more: POLITICO »

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RepAdamSchiff RepJerryNadler RepZoeLofgren RepJeffries RepValDemings RepJasonCrow RepSylviaGarcia SenSchumer SpeakerPelosi RepSwalwell aoc ChrisMurphyCT ewarren IlhanMN BernieSanders KamalaHarris AyannaPressley RashidaTlaib tedlieu RepUnderwood RepJayapal tRUMP administration once again demonstrating its values and priorities. Disgusting! Especially amidst a pandemic-induced recession. Come on, man!!!

To the gop poor people don't matter, people don't matter to them, they got their judge so they can go on vacation now. Screw them. but they wanted to give mall santas 250M to be shills Well he ain’t no Robin Hood, now is he! He thinks this will only hurt Black and Brown people! 😡 I don't 'like' this, I'm glad you're exposing this! He has no soul, morals, compassion ..

Wake up! Trump & his administration doesn't care about ANY of us! What kind of person would do this? Now is when people need help the most, now is when the government needs to step up & help & they're doing the opposite, taking away instead. VOTE HIM OUT!!! Right... That money should go in Their Pockets!!

What happened to state’s rights? Go vote !!!! Billions to illegal immigrants! That’s your President. When you’re down, kick you in the privates. JoshMankiewicz Of course he is, this is so on brand for him! Donald Scrooge JoshMankiewicz More proof realDonaldTrump and the GOP are a party of death. TrumpDeathCult VoteHimOut

The Trump Administration has no intention in managing the spread of COVID and is now denying SNAP benefits to the people that needs it the most. VoteBlueToEndThisNightmare And yet he’s afraid of Leslie! God I like 60 minutes. He is despicable. WTF Gopers ? May you go to bed tonight with no food Donnie Unbelievable.

Not true. Disgusting. VoteLikeYourLifeDependsOnIt Pennsylvania2020 Trump believes they won’t vote for him so he doesn’t care if they suffer and die. So now Trump's fighting to take the food out of the mouth of families. He should be arrested for Crimes against Humanity. He's not happy enough with putting kid's in cages and now he wants American kids to go hungry. VoteBlueToSaveAmerica

Cruelty is their game plan Sounds right. Trump has used al the food stamps available. Proof-look at that fat body! 📉$sandy😈🔓GallghER📉 📉B🛑B☠📸🔭📉PR😈CT😈R📉GaTE$s BuffET MarkVictor ProblemTRUdeau PwILLIAM$s Charles FA$CI$T QUEEN ElizabETh🔓🚨j0E0bAmA's🚨KEEP HIM POOREST NsA CIA🔓C$is Csis🇨🇦☠🔓🇬🇧🇺🇸🇪🇺 🔓☠poisonings☠😈program Pentagon mission playing Game pick 🚨📉T🗝RUmP📉🚨 A puppET

But pro-life and all that... This guy doesn’t want to win This action by the Trump administration is one of the most despicable moves I have ever heard of. Denying food benefits to needy people! It's like if he can't let the nation die by the thousands from Covid 19, he'll accomplish it by slow starvation!! What the hell!!

Kick poor people when they are down! This is the Trump way to hurt the United States! Trump never made America Great! America is crumbling down because of a Trump clown! What kind of people are these in this administration? Fighting to cut everything lowest-income American people are in need of to survive especially in a pandemic.

They are such monsters! So quick to open the People’s purse for bailing out rich people and businesses but couldn’t care less about the well being of struggling families and low income workers — the blood and sweat of our Nation. Monsters!!

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'Saturday Night Live' sees Trump as a man without a Covid-19 plan‘Saturday Night Live’ opens with spoof of the last presidential debate, introducing the event as 'the second and, praise Jesus, final debate' of election season. So 20-20 vision for SNL. Propaganda machine Snl making fun of the president. No late night comedy/news station is doing that. So innovative and original.