Thousands of low-income New Yorkers in need of food stamps for their day-to-day survival won two major court victories in early 2008.

In the face of a slowing economy and rising prices for food and fuel, the number of Americans eligible for food stamps (those whose gross income falls at or below 130% of the poverty level, or $27,560 for a family of four) is on the rise and likely to reach 28 million this year. With one in seven (1.13 million) New Yorkers currently receiving food stamps, it often takes weeks, or even months, for the City to process applications.

NYLAG, along with the National Center for Law and Economic Justice and the Urban Justice Center, filed Williston v. Eggleston to challenge the City’s failure to process applications within legal time frames (30 days, 5 for expedited cases of acute need), as well as the State’s failure to adequately supervise the City’s timely processing of applications. Recently settled, the decision in Williston requires that the City abide by federal and state timelines and that the State improve oversight.

“This ruling ensures that prompt attention and relief will finally be paid to those low-income families that depend on food stamp benefits and are most at risk of going hungry” stated Randal S. Jeffrey, Director of General Legal Services at NYLAG.

The recent settlement of a related case will also provide relief to vulnerable New Yorkers who were denied access to food stamp benefits while working to become self-sufficient. Walker v. Eggleston was filed by NYLAG on behalf of qualified food stamp applicants who were denied transitional benefits when required to participate in the Parks Opportunity Program (POP) as part of their transition from welfare to work. Although food stamps are meant to provide vital economic security during the first stages of employment, New York City’s Human Resources Administration has for years denied benefits to cash assistance (welfare) recipients assigned to low-wage, temporary jobs in the POP program, which pays $7.50 an hour.

Based on federal regulations of the US Department of Agriculture, the Walker decision requires the City and State of New York to restore over $7.2 million in food stamps to nearly 6,000 families living in New York City – about $1,200 per family.

Lead plaintiff Tanya Walker, whose food stamps had dropped from $256 to $94 per month when she started the POP program, said, “I am glad that the case has been settled and that the judge saw that welfare was wrong not to give us food stamps. These food stamps were not just for us, but were also for our kids.”

Elena Goldstein, an attorney with NYLAG’s General Legal Services Unit, applauded the ruling. She said that, “While it is unfortunate that the City and State delayed paying these families their rightful food stamp benefits for many years, this is an enormous victory for working families who struggle to provide food for their families and make ends meet.”

Yet despite a positive outcome for the plaintiffs, future POP participants still face an unjust denial of benefits. New York State, who subsidized the POP program, initially argued that federal regulations forbid them from granting food stamp benefits to POP employees. When the court found in Walker that federal regulations were in fact not prohibitive, the State took procedural steps to disqualify employees who joined POP after October of 2006.

Mr. Jeffrey stated that NYLAG will continue working to prevent the unlawful denial of food stamps, saying that “while this case was a huge victory and first step towards justice, it is crucial that NYLAG continue to improve access to these important benefits.”

For information about food stamps or other public benefits, contact Randal S. Jeffrey, Director of General Legal Services, at [email protected] or 212.613.5053.