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Funds will be available for distribution to Pennsylvania SNAP recipients. Photo: Getty Images
Funds will be available for distribution to Pennsylvania SNAP recipients. Photo: Getty Images

Millions in additional SNAP funds en route to Pennsylvania after lawsuit settlement

Following a litigation settlement, $700 million in SNAP (food stamp) benefits will finally be delivered to Pennsylvanians in need.  

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For over a year, states have been using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamp) flexibility to provide emergency benefit supplements, maintain benefits to households with children missing school meals, and ease program administration during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

These options have allowed states to deliver more food assistance to struggling families, but in Pennsylvania and states across the country, these funds hit a snag early on. 

In March 2020, Congress enacted emergency relief — the Families First Coronavirus Response Act — to SNAP beneficiaries to address the increase in hunger and food hardship arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) interpreted the move to not include those most in need.

This meant that the extra aid could only bring recipients up to the maximum benefit amount, leaving those who were already receiving the maximum benefits, largely low income representing 40% of households in the program, with no additional aid during the pandemic. 

State officials say that the Families First Act allows for all food stamp recipients to receive additional aid, but the USDA countered, insisting the aid is capped, and the lowest-income Pennsylvanians – who are already receiving the maximum benefit due to their low incomes – should not receive any additional help. 

This effectively counteracted the move to increase SNAP benefits during the pandemic in the first place.

An October 2020 survey from Feeding America showed at least a 40%  increase in food insecurity in Southwestern Pennsylvania, showing that the number of people receiving food stamps in the state grew by more than 118,000 since February 2020, according to the then-most recent state statistics.

It is why this week’s March 31 litigation win is big news for SNAP beneficiaries, as Community Legal Services (CLS) Philadelphia has won a lawsuit settlement that will deliver millions in food stamp benefits to Pennsylvanians most in need. 

CLS Philadelphia collaborated with Morgan Lewis over the past year on the litigation, Gilliam v. SDA, challenging the USDA’s interpretation of Congress’s aid enactment. In September, CLS Philadelphia said they obtained a preliminary injunction to enjoin the USDA from applying its interpretation to Pennsylvania.
 

Until now, those funds allocated to Pennsylvania had not been distributed to SNAP beneficiaries. Plaintiffs and USDA reached a settlement, under which all funds allocated by USDA to Pennsylvania to date — over $700 million — will soon be available for distribution to Pennsylvania SNAP recipients.

The USDA will also be changing their national policy so that approximately 12 million families nationwide will get additional SNAP benefits they are owed.
 

Nationwide data shows a sharp increase in the number of families reporting difficulty affording adequate food and basic necessities since the onset of the pandemic. These rates have remained high throughout, which is why  SNAP is essential to helping these families support themselves.

“Food is always at the top of the list.” Yvonne Cintron, a contact center supervisor at Benefits Data Trust (BDT) told AL DÍA in March. “You don’t work, you don’t get paid, you can’t buy food, so SNAP is always at the top.”

This article is part of Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project among more than 20 news organizations focused on economic mobility in Philadelphia. Read all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.

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