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Unemployed Workers Can Get SNAP During Health Emergency

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There’s confusion about whether unemployed workers not raising minor children in their home can get SNAP, given Trump Administration efforts to tighten a rule limiting them to three months of benefits and a new law temporarily suspending that rule due to the coronavirus emergency. Fortunately, the temporary suspension means they can get SNAP throughout the current health emergency.

That’s good news because these individuals, who are already among the poorest of poor and have added challenges in finding a job, face increasingly dire circumstances during the pandemic and related economic downturn.

Here are the details:

Families First law suspends three-month limit. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted March 18, temporarily suspended (as of April 1) SNAP’s three-month time limit for jobless adults without a child at home. These people will remain eligible for SNAP without having to report that they’re working or in job training for an average of 20 hours a week, as they normally would. The suspension lasts through the month after the month in which the Secretary of Health and Human Services lifts the public health emergency.

States don’t need to request a federal waiver or wait for further guidance to stop enforcing the three-month limit. States and community organizations should inform low-income individuals, including those who may have lost SNAP due to the time limit, that they might again qualify for benefits. There’s one caveat: if an individual, without good cause, rejects the state’s offer of a qualifying job training activity, the state can cut that person off. While it’s hard to imagine a better example of good cause than a governor’s stay-at-home order or loss of transportation due to the coronavirus emergency, it may be important for states to explicitly make clear that they will not require individuals to comply with work requirements during this time.

Some states had received federal waivers to exempt part or all of the state from the time limit. But in places where the time limit has been in effect, especially states with no waived areas (Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Wyoming), a vulnerable group of people are once again eligible for SNAP. So are newly unemployed adults without a child in the home. States may need to update their public information about eligibility and their application process to enable eligible people to receive SNAP.

Court previously halted implementation of new rules. The Trump Administration announced plans last December to strictly limit states’ ability to waive the three-month rule in areas without sufficient jobs for this population, but a federal district court on March 13 issued a nationwide injunction halting the changes — blocking the new rule from taking effect until the court decides whether the rule restricts state flexibility beyond what the law allows.

If, by the time the pandemic-related suspension ends, the court hasn’t issued an opinion, states will retain the ability to request waivers that they have used for the past 20 years to protect jobless workers from the three-month time limit. Importantly, those long-standing rules allow a state to request a waiver if it qualifies for extra weeks of unemployment benefits through the Extended Benefits (EB) program due to high unemployment. A number of states may well qualify for EB due to the pandemic’s economic impact.

Unfortunately, both the Families First provision and the court decision are temporary. A long-term solution is needed, given that the downturn’s impact on the job market for workers in low-wage occupations will likely endure beyond the provision and court decision. That’s why some lawmakers are calling for any upcoming stimulus package to suspend the three-month rule until the economy improves.