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Politics & Government
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Lawsuit Settlement Will Bring Millions In Additional Food Stamp Funds To PA

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Gene J. Puskar
/
AP
A settlement will give additional food stamp benefits to more than 650,000 Pennsylvania households.

A legal settlement between the U.S. Department of Agriculture and two Pennsylvania women who are food stamp recipients will result in $712 million in additional food stamp benefits for more than 650,000 of the lowest-income Pennsylvania households.

The settlement, which was announced Wednesday, follows months of litigation as well as a change in leadership at the federal agency after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in November.

At the center of the lawsuit was extra assistance for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients included as part of The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a bill passed by Congress in March 2020. However, the USDA, which administers the program, interpreted the law to mean the extra aid could only bring recipients up to the maximum benefit amount. That left those who were already receiving the maximum benefits – the lowest income families and individuals, representing about 40% of households in the program – with no additional aid during the pandemic.

In September, a federal judge ordered the agency to stop withholding the additional assistance while the lawsuit continued.

“Given Plaintiffs’ economic circumstances, coupled with the exacerbating economic and public health impact of the COVID-19 crisis, the denial of emergency allotments to such individuals unquestionably constitutes irreparable harm,” wrote Judge John Milton Younge, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania.

The USDA responded in a legal filing last year saying it would provide the benefits, but said if it succeeded in court it would force the state to repay the federal government about $82 million per month to recoup the cost of the additional benefits. That threat of having to repay the funds had kept the state from paying out the extra benefits.

“We are so pleased that USDA is revisiting this issue so that people across the country can receive the help they need,” Louise Hayes, Supervising Attorney at Community Legal Services said in a statement. “Over 650,000 households in Pennsylvania—including seniors, people with disabilities and families with children—will finally be getting the extra SNAP they were previously denied. The pandemic has greatly increased hunger, and this will help parents put food on the table for their children.”

According to the settlement, all of the funds allocated to Pennsylvania following the September injunction by the judge – more than $700 million – will go to Pennsylvania SNAP recipients and the federal government agrees it will not recoup the funds. The lawsuit and an appeal will be dismissed. The USDA will pay attorneys’ fees and costs to Community Legal Services and law firm Morgan Lewis, who brought the litigation on behalf of the plaintiffs.  

The reversal by the USDA “really helps those who are struggling the most in our community,” said Ann Sanders, a policy advocate at anti-hunger nonprofit Just Harvest.

In a statement, Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services applauded the settlement and said it is working “quickly” to issue the benefits.

“The Wolf Administration has advocated since March 2020 for an interpretation of section 2302 of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act that would include emergency SNAP allotments for households receiving maximum SNAP benefits, which we believe was the intention of Congress,” said a spokeswoman for DHS.

On Thursday evening, the USDA announced it will provide $1 billion per month in additional assistance nationwide to 25 million people in the lowest income SNAP households.

“Starting this month, households that had not received at least $95 per month in increased benefits through emergency allotments during the pandemic – because they were already at or close to receiving the current maximum benefit – will now be eligible to receive additional benefits,” the agency said in a statement.

“The emergency SNAP increases authorized by Congress last year were not being distributed equitably, and the poorest households – who have the least ability to absorb the economic shocks brought about by COVID – received little to no emergency benefit increases,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “As part of President Biden’s commitment to deliver economic relief, and ensure every family can afford to put food on the table, today’s actions will provide much-needed support for those who need it most.”

This story was updated on Friday, April 2 at 11:45 a.m. to include a response from the USDA.

Kate Giammarise: kgiammarise@wesa.fm

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