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Policymakers Should Protect SNAP From Funding Shortfalls — This Year and Beyond

As the President and Congress turn this fall to finalizing the full-year appropriations bills to fund the government, they should make the changes that they’ve failed to make so far to protect SNAP from possible funding shortfalls.

In addition, if policymakers need to enact another short-term continuing resolution (CR) to fund the government when the current CR expires on November 21, they should make the changes necessary to ensure that if a shutdown occurs when the next CR ends, SNAP beneficiaries won’t experience benefit delays — as they did earlier this year.

Let’s take these different sets of problems one at a time.

With regard to possible funding shortfalls, as we’ve described, SNAP and child nutrition programs (school lunch, school breakfast, summer meals, etc.) are the only major entitlement programs whose beneficiaries are at risk of two types of failures in the appropriations process: a government shutdown (especially at the beginning of the fiscal year) and annual funding that proves inadequate to cover program needs for the entire fiscal year. Such failures can leave tens of millions of low-income families and children unable to afford food, and they risk causing confusion and harm to food retailers and schools.

For most entitlement programs that policymakers fund through the appropriations process — such as veterans’ compensation and pensions, Medicaid, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) — the Appropriations Committees provide protections in their bills against one or both types of appropriations failures.

  • To protect against a potential government shutdown, policymakers provide funding for the budget year and, via an “advance appropriation,” funding for some or all of the following fiscal year. That way, even with a shutdown at the start of the fiscal year, entitlement programs with advance appropriations are already funded at least for the first part of the year and so would not shut down.
  • To protect against inadequate annual funding — such as during an economic slowdown, when unemployment rises, incomes shrink, and more people become eligible for various entitlement programs — policymakers provide “such sums as may be necessary” in the appropriations bills to fulfill the requirements of the underlying law that covers the entitlement in question.

Traditionally, the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have treated SNAP and child nutrition programs differently by not providing either of these two protections. They should change that tradition and, as part of the full-year 2020 appropriations bills, provide the same treatment to SNAP and child nutrition programs that other major entitlements have long enjoyed.

With regard to CR-related problems, consider what happened earlier this year:

The CR that expired in late December of 2018, prompting a government shutdown, provided that SNAP funding would continue benefit payments through the month that began within 30 days of the CR’s expiration — in this case, through January of 2019.

White House and congressional wrangling of January and February over the final 2019 appropriations bills created uncertainty about whether and when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) would pay February and March benefits. After much confusion and disruption, USDA worked with states and SNAP vendors to pay SNAP’s February benefits early for many households. The shutdown ended in time for SNAP beneficiaries to receive their March benefits on time.

But because USDA paid February benefits early, many households experienced a much-longer-than-usual gap between their February and March benefits, making it harder for some households with very tight budgets to afford food. The emergency food network, which is already stretched when it comes to addressing need, was strained even further.

Were the government to shut down this fall after the CR expires, SNAP would face the same challenges. In fact, the challenges could be even bigger because the Government Accountability Office found that USDA acted improperly when it paid February SNAP benefits early. Thus, during a future shutdown, SNAP funding could run out even sooner.

Ideally, the President and Congress would enact the full-year 2020 appropriations bills in time for them to take effect before the current CR expires. That would prevent another government shutdown and, in turn, the SNAP-related problems of earlier this year.

If, however, policymakers were forced to enact another CR to replace the current one, they should at least provide a longer period of time through which USDA can pay SNAP benefits — significantly longer, that is, than (as under last year’s CR) the month that begins within 30 days of the CR’s expiration.

None of the proposed changes to how policymakers treat SNAP, as outlined above, would “cost” the Appropriations Committees any money under congressional budget rules. They would simply protect low-income families with children, seniors, and people with disabilities from risking hunger when funding falls short or political brinksmanship interrupts the appropriations process.