Washington, DC – Legal Aid DC today issued the following statement after District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Administration told the organization it would reverse course after initially saying in December that it would illegally withhold $39.6 million in food assistance from low-income District residents.
The Administration’s change in position comes after Legal Aid DC and Zuckerman Spaeder LLP notified the Mayor’s Office it would file a lawsuit tomorrow against the Administration for illegally withholding $39.6 million in food assistance from approximately 144,000 District residents.
“For Legal Aid’s clients, full implementation of the increased SNAP benefits isn’t about politics – it’s about putting food on the table,” said Vikram Swaruup, Executive Director of Legal Aid DC. “We are deeply grateful to Legal Aid’s clients who were willing to go to court tomorrow to vindicate the rights of their neighbors to be treated fairly by the Administration. It should not have taken the threat of a lawsuit for the Administration to follow the law and help families who need it, but we are glad they have committed to beginning that process. We will need to hear much more about how the Administration plans to fully and promptly implement this policy, and we will continue to zealously advocate for the rights of our clients in that process.”
Legal Aid DC and Zuckerman Spaeder were prepared to file a lawsuit tomorrow, together with a motion seeking an immediate injunction to require the Department of Human Services to comply with the legal requirement to increase food assistance benefits. Before filing such a motion, court rules required Legal Aid DC to notify the other side and seek its consent to the relief requested in the motion. In doing so, Legal Aid DC also made the Mayor’s Office aware of its intent to file the suit tomorrow. In response to Legal Aid’s communications about the impending legal action, the Mayor’s Office ultimately committed to Legal Aid that it would implement the SNAP funds as directed by the Council's law.
Legal Aid DC has asked for further details about how the District will implement the SNAP benefits in full. In particular, Legal Aid DC has asked how and when the District will pay the benefits retroactive to January 1 and to confirm that District residents receive the full benefits to which they are entitled to in February.
Last year, the Council passed – and the Mayor signed into law – legislation requiring that any potential excess city revenue from fiscal year 2023 – up to $39.6 million – go toward additional Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits starting on January 1, 2024. The Chief Financial Officer certified that this funding is available and transferred the funds to the Department of Human Services for disbursement.
However, in December, the Administration indicated that it would not implement the law and increase benefits. All 13 Councilmembers have urged the Mayor to follow the law, and the Office of the Attorney General issued a memorandum stating that the Administration’s failure to implement the benefits increase is illegal. The Council will vote on January 9 to determine whether to file a lawsuit of its own or participate in other lawsuits challenging the Administration’s illegal withholding of funding. Legal Aid DC sent a letter to the Mayor on December 18 calling on her to follow DC law and ensure excess city revenue goes toward increased food assistance for struggling residents.
These benefits would directly help the approximately 140,000 District residents who rely on the program to feed their families, as food costs continue to increase. The current average SNAP benefit in the District is $188 per person per month — roughly $6.19 a day. For many District residents who receive these benefits, SNAP makes up most or all of their food budget.
Roughly 20 percent of District residents receive SNAP benefits, reinforcing the critical impact these increased funds would have for residents and families struggling to put food on the table. The number of calls from residents seeking help from Legal Aid DC to access their SNAP benefits doubled over the past year from 91 calls between January – November 2022 to 193 calls over the same period in 2023
Katina Cheadle, a plaintiff in the initially planned lawsuit, uses SNAP benefits to help feed her family of seven children between the ages of one and 20 years old. Even with this support, Ms. Cheadle still struggles to feed her family, especially since her husband was laid off from his job. By the middle of the month, they often run out of food assistance. The increase in food assistance would enable her to consistently ensure that she can feed her family and purchase healthier food.
“Every month, I struggle to feed our family which includes seven growing children,” said Ms. Cheadle. “With a little bit of help, my family would be able to do another grocery run each month while avoiding running out of our existing SNAP benefits, which too often happens. This would make a huge difference for us and would help make sure my family doesn’t have to choose between paying our bills and putting food on the table.”
More than half of all SNAP beneficiaries in the District are families with children. According to D.C. Hunger Solutions, District households with children were twice as likely to experience food insecurity as households without children. Food insecure children are more likely to experience stomach aches, headaches, colds, ear infections, and fatigue. They are sick more often, recover more slowly, and are more likely to be hospitalized than children who are not food insecure.
About Legal Aid DC
Legal Aid DC was formed in 1932 and is the oldest and largest general civil legal services program in the District of Columbia.
Over the last 90 years, Legal Aid DC staff and volunteers have been making justice real – in individual and systemic ways – for tens of thousands of persons living in poverty in the District. The largest part of our work is comprised of individual representation in housing, domestic violence/family, public benefits, and consumer law, although we also work on immigration law matters and help individuals with the collateral consequences of their involvement with the criminal legal system. From the experiences of our clients, we identify opportunities for law reform, public policy advocacy, and systemic reform litigation.
For more information about Legal Aid DC please visit our website, www.legalaiddc.org.
About Zuckerman Spaeder LLP
With nearly 50 years of experience managing complex, high-stakes legal disputes and investigations, Zuckerman Spaeder LLP is considered one of the nation’s premier litigation boutiques. The firm’s accomplished attorneys, many of whom served as prosecutors or senior government officials, represent businesses, organizations, and individuals in white collar defense, enforcement actions, commercial disputes, health care litigation, ethics matters, class actions, and in a variety of pro bono matters.
For more information about Zuckerman Spaeder, please visit our website: www.zuckerman.com.