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USDA Rolling Back SNAP Flexibility That States Need in Current Crisis

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The Agriculture Department (USDA) is restricting key flexibility in SNAP (food stamps) that the President and Congress gave states in the Families First Act of March to help them manage an applications influx due to COVID-19 and the recession — saying states must return to “normal operations,” even though current circumstances are anything but normal.

SNAP responded quickly, as it’s designed to do, to the sharp rise in unemployment and food insecurity, especially among households with children. Caseloads jumped by more than 6 million people or about 17 percent nationally between February and May, as household incomes fell precipitously. SNAP could manage this unprecedented increase largely because Families First allowed USDA to let states temporarily change their SNAP procedures to make it easier for people to receive food assistance while state SNAP agencies operate remotely. Policymakers sought to give states the flexibility to accomplish two things during this national crisis, while still verifying core elements of eligibility like income and identity:

  1. Ensure that participating households don’t lose benefits. Ordinarily, SNAP households must periodically prove that they’re still eligible by submitting paperwork and completing an interview; if they don’t, or if the state doesn’t input the needed information by a specified date, most states’ computers will cut off food benefits. But the vast majority of states are using their flexibility under Families First to waive these requirements or extend deadlines, both to preserve participants’ benefits and to streamline administrative work. With job losses at historic levels and hardship rising dramatically, we must not cut off eligible people because their paperwork is lost or delayed or they can’t reach a caseworker for an interview.
  2. Make it easier for newly eligible people to start receiving benefits. SNAP’s rigorous eligibility and enrollment process requires applicants to document their circumstances and complete an interview. With 20 million nonfarm jobs lost in April alone, most states used their flexibility under Families First to simplify the application process in order to prioritize access to food assistance for the swelling numbers of unemployed.

Almost every state asked for waivers of federal requirements from March through June, mainly so they could extend eligibility periods for households already on SNAP and revise interview procedures. These changes worked: unlike state unemployment insurance (UI) programs, which struggled with the huge influx early on, SNAP added people at unprecedented levels.

Since June, however, USDA has restricted states’ flexibility, arguing that they should begin to “return to normal processing” by September. That’s far too soon, for several reasons.

While SNAP caseload growth nationally apparently has slowed substantially in July, that likely isn’t due to reduced need. Instead, as state flexibility ends, states are likely cutting off some eligible households for not fulfilling paperwork and interview requirements within strict deadlines, partly because many states can’t manage the workload surge. Also, the temporary federal increase in UI benefits is making some households ineligible for SNAP — but that extra UI income just ended, so the need for SNAP could rise even as USDA forces states to reimpose strict eligibility procedures.

Further, as COVID-19 hot spots continue to flare up and some areas that began reopening reverse course, individual states continue to see rising need for SNAP. States that may have hoped the crush of SNAP applications was temporary are now planning for a long period of increased need while facing budget shortfalls and long-term economic uncertainty.

Also, many states haven’t yet set up virtual eligibility processing, and some have reduced staff capacity. These challenges aren’t limited to just a few states, as the American Public Human Services Association noted in calling for continued administrative flexibility. Attorneys general from 22 states recently wrote USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue to warn that withdrawing flexibility would delay getting benefits to eligible households.

In contrast to USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services is still approving states’ waivers and other changes to their Medicaid procedures. States can use less restrictive methods to determine eligibility, adopt a streamlined application, and let health care providers temporarily enroll seniors and people with disabilities who appear eligible.

Policymakers gave USDA the tools to respond to the extraordinary circumstances that state SNAP agencies and millions of low-income households face. Now, USDA needs to continue giving states the flexibility to respond to the unprecedented increase in need until COVID-19 is under control and agency operations have returned to something like normal.