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Poorest Pennsylvanians to receive retroactive food stamp benefits thanks to local attorneys

Overall, around 650,000 Pennsylvania households will be seeing the extra food stamp benefits.

A sign indicates a store that accepts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, the official name of the food stamp program.
A sign indicates a store that accepts the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, the official name of the food stamp program.Read moreFile photo/Dispatch / MCT

The poorest Pennsylvanians will receive around $712 million in retroactive food stamp benefits — $188 million for Philadelphia residents alone ― now that a July lawsuit initially filed against the Trump administration by a local law firm has been settled.

The firm, Community Legal Services, which serves low-income clients in the area, settled with the Biden administration Wednesday. CLS was aided by John Lavelle from the Center City law firm Morgan Lewis, which contributed its work pro bono.

Overall, around 650,000 Pennsylvania households will be seeing the extra food stamp benefits, now called SNAP for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The CLS filed its lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on behalf of Pennsylvanians denied emergency food assistance during the COVID-19 crisis.

While the Trump administration’s USDA policy affected low-income people throughout the entire nation, only Pennsylvanians are recouping SNAP benefits thus far.

“It goes to show how the poorest out there don’t have a lot of advocates and lawyers,” said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. “And that’s why CLS really is one of the top legal services organizations in the country.”

However, the Biden administration indicated in the settlement that it may soon distribute payments to some 12 million low-income people throughout the United States who were adversely affected by USDA policy under President Donald Trump.

It’s not clear when the money will be released. Payments to low-income Pennsylvanians will vary. A single person could expect a one-time payment of $835, while a family consisting of a parent and child might receive $1,533, according to CLS attorney Amy Hirsch, who worked with colleague Louise Hayes on the lawsuit against the USDA.

Throughout the state, there were more than 1.8 million individuals receiving SNAP benefits in February, the latest figures available from the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger show; in Philadelphia, there are 456,700. SNAP benefits amount to around $1.40 per meal.

A single paragraph

The battle with the Trump administration began in March 2020, after Congress created the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a law enabling SNAP households to purchase, depending on their amount of benefits, two weeks’ worth of food to have on hand during stay-at-home orders and business closures in the midst of the pandemic. This would limit the number of their trips to grocery stores, thereby helping maintain social distancing.

Controversy erupted around a single paragraph in the law.

It said that the USDA should provide “emergency allotments to households participating in [SNAP] ... to address temporary food needs not greater than the applicable maximum monthly allotment for the household size.”

By instructing the USDA to provide emergency allotments to SNAP households, the act stipulated that the agency must increase benefits to all people in the program, many observers inferred. The only caveat was that the emergency money itself shouldn’t exceed maximum allotment levels.

Typically, SNAP benefits are capped according to household size and poverty level: Last year when the law was created, a single person could receive up to $194 a month; for two people, it was $355; for three, $509; for four, $646. Under the new law, for instance, a family of three getting $200 a month in SNAP benefits would a bump to the maximum $509.

As the Trump USDA interpreted the law, however, the term emergency allotment didn’t mean an extra layer of funding to be applied to existing benefits. The agency said emergency money should go only to households that did not receive maximum allotments, around 60% of the approximately 40 million Americans receiving SNAP benefits.

This omitted the remaining 40% — the poorest households in America, which receive the highest possible levels of benefits. The way SNAP works, the poorest people get the most help.

“What the Trump administration did was turn the normal principle of food stamps upside down and said we will only give emergency allotments to people who have more income, and offer nothing to the poorest families,” Hirsch said.

The state of Pennsylvania has not been party to the case. In September, CLS won a preliminary injunction, leading to a circumstance in which the Trump USDA began approving retroactive payments to low-income Pennsylvanians.

But, still fighting CLS last fall, the agency stipulated it would appeal the injunction and if it won, it would claw back the money, Hirsch said.

As a result, Pennsylvania state officials were unwilling to issue the SNAP benefits the USDA was releasing for fear it would lose on appeal and have to pay back all the benefits, Hirsch said.

Then, the election brought in a new administration, which ultimately agreed to this week’s settlement. The Biden USDA has said it will not seek reimbursement for the $712 million to be paid to Pennsylvanians, according to the terms of the settlement.

“We’re incredibly excited and grateful that families and seniors who’ve been facing hunger during the pandemic will get this additional help they have so urgently needed,” Hirsch said.

Her clients declined to be interviewed.

Hirsch said she asked one, an 84-year-old man, what he would do with the extra benefits. “I’d buy fruit and fish,” the man said. “I love them, but I haven’t been able to afford either of them.”

In a statement, cocounsel Hayes said: We are so pleased that the USDA is revisiting this issue so that people across the country can receive the help they need.

“The pandemic has greatly increased hunger, and this will help parents put food on the table for their children.”