OAKLAND, Calif. (CN) — A federal judge refused Wednesday to uncap emergency food benefits available to low-income Californians during the pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program through the Food and Nutrition Service, had issued a template on March 20 for states to request extra food stamp allotments in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, stating the request would “bring all households up to the maximum benefit” for two months.
In extra guidance a month later, however, the department clarified that households already receiving the maximum amount of food stamps based on their household size would not be eligible for additional benefits.
SNAP recipients Robin Hall and Steven Summers responded in May with a class action, claimed the agency had unlawfully capping food stamps at the monthly maximum of $194 per person in California, about $6.38 per day or about $2 per meal, when Congress intended eligible Californians to receive an extra $60 per month in emergency aid.
They sought to enjoin the department from denying any requests from the state of California for additional food stamps, claiming the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted by Congress on March 18, sets aside extra money for SNAP benefits, commonly known as food stamps, for households experiencing temporary income loss.
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.”
U.S. District Judge Haywood Gilliam said in his ruling Wednesday that Congress has not suggested that the USDA’s guidance runs counter to its intention in passing the FFCRA.
"The court acknowledges that plaintiffs’ argument that all SNAP households need support in the midst of the pandemic is compelling as an equitable matter. However, 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,” Gilliam wrote.
He added that while he understands the challenges facing SNAP households, he cannot say the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the FFCRA, which would raise the maximum monthly allotment cap on food stamps substantially, is the only reasonable one.
“Congress may have been concerned with the likelihood of lost or unpredictable income for SNAP households, warranting the need for flexibility for states to quickly raise all households’ allotments to the statutory maximum without necessarily providing benefits in excess of that maximum,” Gilliam wrote.
He added that Congress only appropriated $15 billion for emergency SNAP relief in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. It would cost an additional $6.7 billion to $7 billion per month to bring households past the monthly maximum, which would quickly deplete the appropriated funds.
The judge also wasn’t convinced that an injunction would redress the plaintiffs’ injury, since the state, not individuals, must make the emergency request for extra SNAP benefits. California’s Department of Social Services made its initial request on March 25, but the USDA rejected it on March 26, finding it was “not aligned” with the department’s guidance.
The state submitted a revised request on March 27 and ultimately received an extra $253.6 million per month in emergency food stamps benefits for 2.1 million households for March and April.
Gilliam noted the state’s conspicuous absence from the case at last week’s hearing.
“California is certainly not shy when bringing lawsuits when its interests are implicated,” he said.
“The fact that California is not now seeking or having a pending request for those benefits isn't evidence that it won't do so in the future,” Prieto said. “USDA put California in a bind- either do the request exactly as we're saying you have to or we're not going to approve any request.”
Prieto said California conformed its revised request to the department’s standards “so at least some families would be getting benefits, rather than none of them.”
But Gilliam said in his ruling that “The court simply has no basis to say what California would do if the court entered plaintiffs’ requested preliminary injunction.”
He ordered the parties to return to court on June 30 to discuss resolving the case.
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