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Michigan Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Terminations


Problem Statement

In 2013, Michigan implemented a data-matching system to enforce federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) regulations (CFR 273.11(n)) which ban people fleeing from a felony prosecution from accessing SNAP benefits. The system compared the names of people enrolled in or applying to SNAP with a database of outstanding felony warrants. The latter database was maintained by the Michigan State Police in the Law Enforcement Information Network (LEIN). The matching program was part of austerity measures pushed by Republican Governor Rick Snyder and a Republican-controlled legislature. The enforcement of the felony arrest warrant rule was already primed to have a disparate impact on Black residents, regardless of any technical issues—as racism in the criminal legal system makes Black people much more likely to be stopped and arrested than white people.

After the system was rolled out, over 19,000 people were automatically cut off from food assistance that they had been receiving, which was about $150-$200 a month. Some of these people were victims of identity theft, or their relatives had used their name during interactions with police. They received vague notices of these automated terminations, like, “You or a member of your group is not eligible for assistance due to a criminal justice disqualification.” Many of these people had developmental disabilities and needed full-time caretaking services. Even those that appealed through the state’s regular appeal process did not have their benefits reinstated, as the computer system automatically cut them off again—probably because their name was still in the law enforcement database. One woman (whose name had been used on fraudulent checks) traveled to a city she had never visited to turn herself into the police. She spent 8 hours in jail to clear the false arrest charges, and only afterwards regained her food assistance benefits of $200 a month.

Advocates intervened through a class-action lawsuit titled Barry v. Lyon in 2013 and a subsequent case, Unan v. Lyon, in 2015. One of the plaintiffs of the former case, Donitha Copeland, was a member of the Westside Mothers non-profit, which advocates for recipients of public benefits and also participated in the lawsuit. Additionally, Freedom of Information Act Requests later revealed the state’s media campaign plan to use the felony data-matching system to demonize people with outstanding warrants who rely on social safety net programs.

Status of Issue

According to the Detroit Free Press, “In 2015, U.S. District Judge Judith Levy struck down the state’s database, concluding it wrongfully denied plaintiffs of their right to food aid because they were neither actively fleeing or avoiding prosecution for a felony.” After the case, courts required that anyone whose benefits had been wrongly terminated was paid $3,120, or, if they opted out, whatever sum their missed benefits actually totaled.

Sixth Circuit opinion in Barry v Lyon

Sixth Circuit opinion in Unan v Lyon

Detroit Free Press - Court: Michigan stiffed deserving people out of food aid

AI Now Institute - Litigating Algorithms 2019 US Report - Session 3: Public Benefits and Collateral Consequences

Key Parties Involved & Contact

Center for Civil Justice

American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan

Michigan Dept. of Health and Human Services

Westside Mothers

Related Resources

Fair Hearing Guide for Attorneys

A guide attorneys and advocates for using the fair hearing process to both challenge benefits tech decisions and gather information for further advocacy.

Public Records Request Guide

This guide will help you think through how you can use public records requests to help find out why the state decided to implement a benefits technology system, how they implemented it, and how they are using it.