SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps, are an unlikely subject of a modern art exhibit. Yet recently they took center stage in a temporary D.C. art installation titled “Transaction Denied.” Created by artists Mollie Ruskin and Xena Ni, the installation highlighted the arduous SNAP application process, failures in the District’s system that led to the improper termination of benefits, and SNAP beneficiaries’ accounts of their experiences.
Many of these firsthand accounts were sourced from Legal Aid’s federal class action lawsuit against the DC Department of Human Services (DHS) (A team of lawyers from Hogan Lovells, which co-counseled the case, was honored with the Klepper Prize for Volunteer Excellence at last week’s Servant of Justice Awards Dinner). The lawsuit, filed in August 2017, alleges that the District’s systemic fails to timely process SNAP applications and recertifications, as well as to provide notice to beneficiaries of their need to recertify their benefits.
These problems have existed for many years, but became more prevalent following DHS’s 2016 implementation of a new computer system that continues to fail to generate and send notices to SNAP beneficiaries. After this change, Bread for the City’s food pantries experienced a 38% increase in the number of households seeking emergency food assistance throughout the city. In its Wards 7 and 8 food pantries, Bread saw a 52% increase. Martha’s Table also saw a 50% increase of shoppers at its free community markets during the same time period. As noted in the lawsuit, plaintiffs and declarants who lost their SNAP benefits as a result of these failures would sometimes go days or longer without getting enough food to eat.
It can be difficult to wrap one’s head around the bureaucracy of the SNAP program and the devastating impact of its failures. The mixed media and interactive nature of “Transaction Denied” painted a striking picture in a way that words alone cannot. It was heartening to see the emotion with which viewers reacted, and the conversations that started as a result of the installation. “Transaction Denied” – and the stories it shared from some of Legal Aid’s clients – were a powerful reminder of the improvements that can, and must, be made to the District’s implementation of SNAP. Legal Aid’s Public Benefits Law Unit will continue to advocate for these changes on behalf of our clients and all SNAP beneficiaries in the city.
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