May 4, 2020

In this #FRACTurns50 blog, FRAC’s Founding Executive Director, Ron Pollack, shares the organization’s critical role in the expansion of the Food Stamp Program, known today as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Millions of households rely on SNAP as the first line of defense against hunger. As the fallout of COVID continues to deepen, the number of SNAP applications is skyrocketing. It is crucial to protect and strengthen SNAP during this time.

By Ron Pollack, Founding Executive Director of FRAC

50 years ago, over 1,000 counties – one-third of the counties across the country – had no food assistance programs at all for the poor. In those counties, there was neither a Food Stamp Program nor a (surplus-food) Commodity Distribution Program.

As a prelude to FRAC’s formation, I brought two dozen federal lawsuits on the same day, along with local co-counsel, in every state that had one or more counties without food assistance. Our first oral argument occurred in California, which had 16 counties (including some in America’s so-called “bread-basket”) without a food program. The federal district court issued a temporary restraining order requiring all of the 16 counties to implement a food assistance program. Our second argument took place in Texas, which had 109 counties without food assistance. The federal court issued a preliminary injunction requiring all the counties to provide food assistance.

After those two victories, the Office of Economic Opportunity (the federal agency administering the so-called “War on Poverty”) contacted me about creating and funding an organization that systematically would advocate to end hunger. This is what led to the creation of FRAC, even though federal funding only lasted through 1973 (at which time the agency became conservatively politicized and FRAC had to turn to private philanthropy to continue its work).

Shortly after the two litigation victories, President Nixon called the White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health (often called the “Hunger Conference”). In preparing for his speech at the Conference, he asked his two relevant advisors – (future Senator) Daniel Patrick Moynihan and (future Tufts University President) Jean Mayer – to suggest what he should promise that would make a significant splash but would not be costly. Moynihan and Mayer suggested that he promise to implement a Food Stamp Program in every county, indicating it would not be costly since it appeared likely that, due to the California and Texas decisions, the government would lose the other pending lawsuits (which FRAC was then coordinating) as well. In other words, the administration could take credit for something that appeared inevitable.

President Nixon, thus, made this promise — and the Democratic Congress enacted Nixon’s pledge, which resulted in the Food Stamp Program being implemented nationwide. (The sweet irony of this occurred later because, shortly after Nixon made his pledge to expand the program, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the Texas district court decision.)

When Jimmy Carter became President in 1977, FRAC also campaigned to eliminate the Food Stamp Program’s purchase requirement. Yes, participants used to have to pay for food stamps. For example, a family of four with a monthly income of $100 had to pay $44 to obtain $78 worth in food stamps – which, for many, was unaffordable. The purchase requirement greatly discouraged participation.

FRAC’s staff and our allies organized nationally and continually swarmed Capitol Hill wearing buttons simply inscribed with “EPR” (Eliminate the Purchase Requirement). With bipartisan support, the food stamp purchase requirement was ultimately eliminated, narrowly passing over the objection of the Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman.

FRAC Argues and Wins Two U.S. Supreme Court Cases on the Same Day

In 1971, Congress enacted two measures that would have terminated large numbers of low-income people from food stamp aid. In two separate class action lawsuits, FRAC challenged the constitutionality of both measures. The two cases were scheduled for oral argument in the U.S. Supreme Court on the same day, and I argued both of them. Inauspiciously, both were scheduled after President Nixon had appointed four conservative Justices to the Court.

The first case, USDA v. Jacinta Moreno, was described by many as the “hippy household” case. The challenged law prohibited food stamp aid to any household in which not everyone was related to one another (which the law’s Senate sponsor said was the key attribute of a “hippy commune”). The legislation, however, punished the poorest of the poor – people evicted from a house who moved in with others, low-paid agriculture workers needing shelter as they moved up and down the migrant stream, and persons with disabilities cared for by non-relatives.

The second case, USDA v. Lula Mae Murry, challenged a law mainly designed to cut college students from food stamp aid. The challenged law denied food stamps to any household containing a person claimed in the previous year as a tax dependent by someone in another household – even, as often occurs, when no aid was being provided to the person claimed as a dependent. The law did not permit the person claimed as a dependent to show that no, or wholly inadequate, aid was being provided to the household.

The lawsuits were defended by the office of the U.S. Solicitor General. The first case was challenged pursuant to the Constitution’s equal protection clause, and the second was challenged under the due process clause. We won the first case 7-2, and we won the second case 5-4 (the only decision that term in which all four Nixon-appointed Justices voted together and lost).

Be sure to check out Ron’s other blog on FRAC’s role in WIC.