Gone in a SNAP

STEPHANIE ERICKSON—The right to food, and to feed oneself in dignity, is a universal human right that has been acknowledged at every level of both national and international governance. Though this does not mandate that the government to universally provide free food, the universal right to feed oneself in dignity does mandate that the government to provide food assistance to anyone who is unable to feed themselves. Accordingly, the Supreme Court has stated that when the government gives food benefits, the benefit is a constitutional entitlement that cannot be withdrawn without due process consideration.

Yet, over the course of 2016, more than 500,000—potentially as many as one million—of the nation’s poorest individuals will be completely cut off from government food assistance. This revocation of food benefits raises serious due process concerns.

In 1996, the Federal Government instituted the Welfare Law. The Welfare Law defines abled-bodied individuals (“ABAWDs”) as individuals, ages 18–49, who have no dependents, and who do not qualify for an exemption to the Law. One of the harshest provisions of the Rule provides that ABAWDs may only obtain food benefits during three months of any 36-month period.  Fortunately, the Federal Government considered Florida, as well as many other states, exempt from the requirement due to high unemployment rates. However, due to dropping unemployment rates, Florida is no longer considered eligible for exemption.

Consequently, in January of 2016, the Florida Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) implemented a mandatory Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Employment and Training (“SNAP E&T”) program under provisions of federal regulation 7 C.F.R. § 273.24(f). After three months of receiving food stamps in any 36-month period, no ABAWD is eligible to obtain food stamp assistance in any month that the ABAWD has not worked at least 80 hours. Out of 563,507 ABAWDs who live in Florida, it is estimated that as many as 300,000 people will lose their assistance on April 1, 2016.

Currently, without the revocation of food-stamp eligibility, Florida ranks 14th among states for “food hardship.” 18.5% of Floridians have reported that in at least one period of the last twelve months, they did not have enough money to buy food for either themselves or their families.  Unfortunately, for many Floridians, the revocation of food-stamps will effectively mean losing the ability to obtain food.

Because the government is withdrawing food assistance, the withdrawal will be unconstitutional unless all due process considerations are met. When the three-month limitation takes widespread effect, DCF must ensure that only ABAWDs without a SNAP E&T exemption are affected. Any individual with an exemption must maintain their food stamp eligibility past the three month deadline.

Arguably, the most important exemption is a disability. In this context, an individual is disabled if that individual is physically or mentally unfit for employment. Obviously, the best option to assess disability is to individually assess each person. Yet, due to extreme financial and monetary considerations, it is extremely unlikely that such an immense effort will be undertaken by DCF.

Another option DCF could consider is cross-referencing Social Security and Medicaid to determine individuals with designated disabilities. However, a problem arises here, too. Many individuals receiving food stamps have never had the opportunity or need to declare a disability. Under such a system, any disabled individual without a disability on record will be considered ineligible to obtain food benefits.

Moreover, established Social Security and Medicaid disabilities do not encompass all disabilities as contemplated in § 273.24(f). Social Security and Medicaid require a much higher standard to be labeled disabled than § 273.24(f). Unlike Social Security and Medicaid, which require extensive medical documentation as well as claimant testimony, § 273.24(f) requires no documentation. To protect food-stamp eligibility, § 273.24(f) sets the bar so low that a statement by a social worker to DCF that an individual is disabled will constitute a waiver. In another example, § 273.24(f) determines that an individual is disabled if that individual is homeless. Social Security and Medicaid records would not document homeless status.

Another important consideration that DCF must consider is notice. Unemployed, nondisabled, childless adults on SNAP tend to be very poor. Many of these individuals are homeless. Without a designated address or telephone, it is unclear how DCF could notify individuals that their food stamps will cut-off. Moreover, many individuals in Florida are non-English speakers. Many of Florida’s poorest residents speak only Spanish or Creole. Any individual who receives no notice, or only receives notice in a language they cannot understand, will unexpectedly loss benefits.

It is currently unclear whether these due process requirements are being met. It is clear, however, that SNAP E&T will leave many Floridians without food or the ability to feed themselves with dignity. If DCF does not follow all due process requirements, SNAP E&T will be unconstitutional.

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