USDA also later announced it 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.
The legal fight over emergency benefits extends back to May when plaintiffs in California filed a class action lawsuit against USDA alleging 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.”