The Rhode Island ACLU and a national organization that promotes economic justice for low-income families have today filed a federal lawsuit against the state Department of Human Services, alleging that the state’s failure to timely process food stamp applications is resulting in the denial of “desperately needed assistance to help [applicants] feed their families,” and forcing them to “suffer hunger as a result.” The class-action lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorney Lynette Labinger and attorneys for the National Center for Law and Economic Justice, seeks an injunction requiring the state to process food stamp applications within the time frames established by federal law, and a temporary restraining order to provide immediate benefits to the suit’s named plaintiff.
Under federal law, states participating in the food stamp program are required to process food stamp applications within thirty days of the date of application, and to provide expedited food stamps to eligible households within seven days. In March 2009, more than 99,000 Rhode Islanders participated in the program, and in March of this year alone, 3,700 individuals enrolled in the program. Yet the most recent statistics from the federal government’s Food and Nutrition Service indicate that almost one-fifth of Rhode Island’s food stamp applications are not processed in a timely manner.
The lawsuit was filed as a class action on behalf of all food stamp applicants affected by DHS’ failure to process the applications in a timely manner. The named plaintiff is Providence resident Shalonda Spruill, who lost her job in January and has been unable to find work since then. According to the complaint, she has no income or savings, and does not have enough money to buy the food that she and her eight-year old daughter need. The suit alleges that although she first applied for food stamps in mid-May and is eligible for expedited food stamps, her application still has not been acted upon.
Referring to the many families affected by DHS’ failure to abide by the federal timelines, the brief filed in the case notes that “food stamps are an essential source of support that permits them to survive at the barest edge of poverty. Without food stamps, a meager subsistence benefit, they will be unable to purchase food for themselves and their families. None of them can suffer the loss of food stamps without experiencing serious harm.”
RI ACLU volunteer attorney Labinger said today: “The time deadlines in federal law are there for a purpose, and the state’s inaction is causing an intolerable hardship on families. No child in Rhode Island should have to go to bed hungry due to paperwork delays.”