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Black Couple Sues Tennessee for Food Stamp Discrimination
by JoNina Abron Ervin (jonina1.1 [at]
Thursday Feb 11th, 2010 3:31 PM
An African-American couple is suing the state of Tennessee for age and racial discrimination in the state's federally funded food stamp program.

Black Couple Sues Tennessee
For Discrimination In
Food Stamp Program

(Nashville, Tenn.) - An African-American couple here is suing the Tennessee Department of Human Services for practicing age and racial discrimination in the state’s federally funded food stamp program.

The couple, Lorenzo and JoNina Ervin, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Middle Tennessee, last week that accuses DHS officials of fraudulently counting JoNina Ervin’s retirement funds as assets. The officials then used the retirement funds to disqualify the Ervin household from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as the food stamp program.

The SNAP is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. DHS runs the program in Tennessee. Under the guidelines of the U.S. Farm and Nutrition Act of 2008, retirement funds cannot be counted to determine food stamp eligibility or benefit levels for elderly recipients--people age 60 and older. The Ervins are in their early 60’s.

In 2009, the Tennessee Legislature passed a bill making the Farm and Nutrition Act a state law. DHS regulations state that retirement funds cannot be counted as assets to determine food stamp eligibility for Tennessee recipients age 60 and older.

According to the lawsuit, the Ervins applied for food stamps in January, 2009, deep in the current recession. The family ultimately was given monthly food stamp benefits of $367, the maximum amount allowed for a household of two.

JoNina Ervin has a small annual pension earned from her 13 years of previous employment teaching at a university in Michigan. She received an annual retirement payment in August, 2009. The lawsuit alleges that the Ervins’ troubles started when JoNina reported the payment to the family’s DHS caseworker.

According to the lawsuit, the caseworker immediately cut the family’s food stamp benefits from $367 to $120. When the Ervins appealed this reduction,, their benefits were briefly restored.

However, the lawsuit explains, the Ervins were terminated from the food stamp program in January after food stamp officials violated federal and state laws, using JoNina’s retirement funds to fabricate the couple’s monthly income. DHS officials claimed that JoNina’s annual pension and the low income she earns from part-time work caused the family to go over the food stamp eligibility by thousands of dollars.

The lawsuit alleges that DHJS officials removed the Ervins from the food stamp program in retaliation to get back at the family for filing several appeals that challenged the illegal acts of state food stamp officials. The Ervins protested this harassment by filing a complaint with the USDA, which administers the food stamp program. The USDA is requesting federal mediation between the Ervins and the DHS, which is scheduled for early March.

Tennessee has six million people. Some 1.3 million of these people are food stamp recipients, according to DHS statistics. Between 15 per to 20 percent of the state’s food stamp recipients are elderly families or a family with an elderly member.

“The Tennessee Department of Human Services is a heartless bureaucracy,” Lorenzo Ervin said. “In the sunset of their lives, most senior citizens expect to live on their pensions and if necessary (and they can afford to quit work), government programs like food stamps or Social Security.

“DHS has power over how much food senior citizen recipients of food stamps can buy and eat. Food is important to sustain life, and denial of food stamps can mean death for poor elderly persons applying for, or already in, the food stamp program,“ Ervin added. “State officials cannot get used to the fact that a new class of poor people, who used to have decent incomes, have had to come into the food stamp program for mere survival because of high unemployment, closing factories, and high prices of food.”