Feds Defend Denial of Covid Benefits to Poorest of the Poor

Clients line up outside the Mississippi Department of Employment Security WIN Job Center in Pearl, Miss. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis, File)

PHILADELPHIA (CN) — An appellate panel appeared divided Tuesday on the government’s effort to deny pandemic-related assistance to low-income households who have already maxed out food stamps.

In Pennsylvania, where the case is underway, the effort would keep emergency funding off limits to some 40% of people who get SNAP benefits, short for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The Department of Agriculture took the position last year when it was directed by Congress as part of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to provide states with extra money for low-income households in need of emergency assistance.

At oral arguments Tuesday, the government pushed the Third Circuit to lift an injunction from U.S. District Judge John Younge, who found that the harm to the “poorest among Pennsylvania SNAP households” would be irreparable. 

“Why would Congress ignore those in the most extreme situation,” Obama-appointed U.S. Circuit Judge Patty Shwartz asked.

Justice Department attorney Joshua Handell stumbled to answer, pointing instead to the fact that Pennsylvania still has not distributed the emergency funds in the months since the injunction was put in place. 

“Actions speak louder than words,” said Handell. “They have not even distributed the allotments.”

Handell argued that the Department of Agriculture interpreted the statute just as Congress intended: to cap emergency allotments for those who already maxed out their benefits, not to nearly double the benefits.

“If Congress had intended to write the statue that way, there’s a very easy way for them to do so,” said Handell.

Representing a class led by SNAP recipients LaToya Gilliam and Kayla McCrobie, David Salmons argued before the appeals court Tuesday that the statue is clear: All SNAP recipients are entitled to these emergency funds.

The Morgan Lewis attorney, who took the case pro bono, added that Congress put a cap on the emergency allotments, not pre-Covid-19 monthly allotments. 

U.S. Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro quoted the statute as specifying that emergency funds are “to address temporary food needs not greater than the applicable maximum monthly allotment for the household size.” 

“Reading the text literally, it can be helpful to your side, but there’s another way to read it,” said Ambro, a Clinton appointee. “That shows this statute is not as well-crafted as one might hope.”

Naturally Ambro pressured Salmons on a ruling out of the Ninth Circuit in California just last week that sided with the USDA.

In a 2-1 ruling, the Ninth Circuit affirmed a federal judge’s ruling that said it is up to Congress, not the courts, to determine what relief is necessary. Further the ruling noted that SNAP recipients were not likely to suffer irreparable harm because the states, not individuals, make the request for the emergency funds.

Salmons respectfully disagreed that this changed the language of the statute.

“I don’t think that just because some judges got it wrong it makes a statue unambiguous,” Salmons said.

The panel was rounded out by U.S. Circuit Judge Cheryl Ann Krause, an Obama appointee.

Neither Handell nor Salmons responded to emails seeking comment.

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