Most States Are Using New Flexibility in SNAP to Respond to COVID-19 Challenges
States have jumped on the Families First Coronavirus Response Act’s options to provide emergency SNAP (food stamp) supplements and ease program administration during the pandemic to deliver more food assistance to struggling families, help manage rising administrative demands, and ensure that participants maintain much-needed benefits. Most states have also taken advantage of the flexibility the Act provides to maintain benefits to households with children missing school meals, and we encourage all remaining states to do so.
The far-reaching health and economic effects of COVID-19 and widespread business closures to limit its spread have made it even more difficult for many low-income households to afford food.The far-reaching health and economic effects of COVID-19 and widespread business closures to limit its spread have made it even more difficult for many low-income households to afford food, given how many have lost jobs and income and still have bills to pay. SNAP is essential to helping these families put food on the table.
As we’ve explained, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided the Agriculture Department (USDA) with authority to let states temporarily modify procedures to make it easier for families to continue participating in or apply for SNAP. And it temporarily suspended, nationwide, SNAP’s three-month time limit on benefits for unemployed adults under age 50 without children in their home. In addition to provisions in the new law, USDA has encouraged states to use existing program flexibility.
All states have boosted emergency supplementary benefits, the vast majority have taken steps to ease SNAP administration and maintain participation, and over 30 have been approved for school meal replacement benefits, the table below shows.
Specifically, the Act allows states to:
- Increase SNAP benefits to meet immediate rising need. The law provides two ways for states to raise benefits for many SNAP participants and other households experiencing falling income and rising food needs.
- Emergency allotment: States can provide many SNAP households with emergency supplementary benefits up to the maximum benefit a household can receive for up to two months; all states have used this option. SNAP benefits are determined based on a formula that estimates how much income families have available to buy food; SNAP benefits make up the difference between this amount and the maximum benefit, which is based on a USDA estimate of the cost of a nutritionally adequate diet at minimal cost. About 60 percent of SNAP households receive less than the maximum benefit because they have some income available to buy food under benefit calculation rules and would benefit from this provision. For example, in 2019, a family of three could receive a maximum benefit of $505 if the state determined they had no income available to purchase food, but the average benefit for a household of three was an estimated $365. (Unfortunately, USDA’s interpretation excluded the lowest-income 40 percent of SNAP households, who already receive the maximum benefit.) Every state was originally approved to provide these benefits for two months. States may provide these benefits as long as the federal government has declared a public health emergency and the state has issued an emergency or disaster declaration. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service has clarified that states can request additional months of emergency allotments as long as those conditions are met; it has allowed 37 states to provide at least a third month of benefits.
- Pandemic EBT (P-EBT): The Act allows states to submit requests to provide meal replacement benefits through SNAP, known as “Pandemic EBT” (for electronic benefit transfer), for households with children who attend a school that’s closed and who would otherwise receive free or reduced-price meals. Though many states needed time to overcome administrative challenges, most states have now selected the option, with many beginning implementation. The remaining states that have yet to submit requests should work with USDA and their state educational agencies to make sure that families with children missing out on school meals can get enough food to eat.
- Extend certification periods and adjust reporting requirements. Every month a portion of SNAP participants must submit paperwork and complete an interview to continue receiving benefits. As the table shows, the vast majority of states are now waiving these requirements or extending deadlines, both to preserve participants’ benefits and to streamline administrative work and help deal with rising applications at a time of reduced capacity. States were originally approved for these waivers through May, and most states have also received extensions of this waiver through June.
- Adapt telephonic signature requirements. Before the crisis many states had implemented technology to let households apply for SNAP by phone, including using a stored telephonic signature. Current regulations require states to record verbal assent in an audio file to ensure that there is a record of applicants understanding and agreeing to information gathered and used by the state worker. The waiver will allow states to take SNAP applications by phone by allowing a state eligibility worker to document the household’s attestation to the collected information on the client’s behalf without requiring a recorded signature. This temporary step will help states process applications in the current environment where offices are closed and not all clients can access online applications.
- Modify quality control processes by shifting in-person case reviews to remote, and extend and waive deadlines. States must independently check the accuracy of household eligibility and benefit levels for a share of their cases each month. The process typically involves an in-person interview with households, often at their home. All states have opted to use the Act’s flexibility to conduct quality control interviews by phone instead of in person, and to extend the deadline to process case reviews to maintain program integrity while still complying with social distancing requirements. USDA has also allowed all states to cancel reviews for the months of March, April, and May, unless they choose to opt out of this flexibility.
Waive other requirements, such as the application interview, to prepare for a flood of new applications. In addition to taking steps to ensure participants can continue getting benefits, states are exploring waivers to accommodate an expected dramatic rise in new applications. Many states are already reporting significant increases, and given the massive spike in claims for unemployment insurance in recent weeks and the likelihood of a sharp economic downturn, states will likely see large SNAP application increases for months to come. State SNAP agencies must manage this rising volume at a time of office closures, staffing shortages, and potential difficulties with a remote work environment.
Over 40 states have now taken up USDA’s temporary nationwide waiver of the interview at application or recertification in order to ensure that newly eligible households can access food assistance through SNAP and others can stay on. SNAP rules require all households to be interviewed either in person or over the telephone, by a state eligibility worker at initial application and usually at least once a year thereafter. This requirement can be an important way for states to gather accurate information and for applicants to have their questions answered, but in the current environment it can be a labor-intensive task that can delay approval. USDA has allowed states to dispense with the interview temporarily for many households. Our paper provides more detail on these and other options states can pursue to simplify and streamline processes to help serve new participants more quickly.
- Pilot an online purchasing program. The 2014 farm bill created a pilot program for states to test the feasibility and outcomes resulting from allowing retailers to accept SNAP benefits for online food purchases. In 2019, New York became the first state to launch a pilot, joined by Washington State in January 2020 and three other states in early March 2020 (Alabama, Iowa, and Oregon). Since the crisis has hit, more states have been approved for expedited online purchasing pilots. Online purchasing is limited to state-approved retailers, which in most states include Walmart and Amazon, as well as others such as Wright’s Market in Alabama and ShopRite in New York. This waiver allows individuals receiving SNAP benefits to get the food they require while adhering to social distancing rules.
USDA has also approved other waivers that will temporarily suspend some administrative requirements for states, not shown in the table below.
USDA has also denied state waiver requests, some of which were detailed in a recent letter. For example, over half of states had requested waivers to temporarily suspend the student eligibility rules, which limit SNAP eligibility to students enrolled at least half time in institutions of higher learning to those who meet certain exemptions, such as those who are working at least 20 hours per week or are participating in federal work study programs. USDA has also denied waivers to temporarily adjust other practices, including application processing, quality control, reporting, and other aspects of program rules.
The table below shows the waivers and options that states have adopted. We will update it as states modify their approach to these options and begin pursuing others that the Families First Coronavirus Act allows them to apply for.
Taking advantage of these provisions as much as possible would help states retool their programs temporarily to deal with the immediate food and operational crises.
|State USDA-Approved SNAP Waivers and Options, as of May 28, 2020|
|State||Provide emergency allotment (*approved for at least third-month extensiona)||Provide benefits for households with children missing school meals (P-EBT)||Extend certification periods, adjust reporting requirement through May (*approved through June 30)||Adapt telephonic signature requirements||Grant flexibility for quality control interviews and extend case review deadlines||Adjust interview requirements||Pilot an online purchasing program|
|District of Columbia||X*||X||X*||X||X||X||X|
May 29, 2020
 States may request these waivers and provide emergency allotments when both the federal government has declared a public health emergency and the state has issued an emergency or disaster declaration. States may request P-EBT benefits when schools are closed and the federal government has declared a public health emergency.
 States were originally approved to provide emergency allotments for two months, either March and April or April and May. Some 31 states have been approved for a third month (May or June), and six states have been approved for a fourth month (those states originally provided benefits in March and April, and therefore have received extensions in May and June).
 USDA has also approved at least one state, Pennsylvania, to postpone the interview for certain households that qualify for expedited benefits. Those households have extremely low income and resources, and the state must process the application and provide benefits within seven days of application; the state also may delay, for one month to 45 days, verification of items that cannot be obtained quickly, other than verification of identity. Normal SNAP rules require states to complete the interview within those timeframes, but the waiver allows the state to postpone the interview along with other verification items.
 Here is a brief summary of many of these waivers, all of which can be found at Food and Nutrition Service, “SNAP: COVID-19 Waivers by State,” https://www.fns.usda.gov/disaster/pandemic/covid-19/snap-waivers-flexibilities.
USDA has allowed 15 state agencies to temporarily stop pursuing certain claims and not consider related payments delinquent. (When SNAP households receive more benefits than they are eligible for — for example because the SNAP eligibility worker made a mistake, or the household misunderstood the rules or provided incorrect information, either by mistake or intentionally — SNAP state agencies must collect the amount overpaid, unless pursuing the claim is not cost effective.)
At least eight states have been approved for waivers to extend the timeframe to complete fair hearings, which states are required to provide for SNAP participants to appeal a state decision that affects their participation, such as denying or terminating benefits; these hearings are an important tool for clients to exercise their rights.
At least three states have received waivers to extend the timeline for administrative disqualification hearings, which states must provide to determine that an individual has committed an intentional violation of program rules (such as making a false statement).
USDA has approved at least five state waivers to temporarily suspend use of the Income and Eligibility Verification System, a database in which states ordinarily must verify certain income and other information.
Three states have received approval to extend the period of time granted to households that have attempted but are unable to provide a Social Security number.
At least two states have received approval to delay notices that states must issue to households with multiple EBT card replacement requests.
Two states have received waivers to allow certain community partners who assist SNAP applicants with the application process to sign the application on the client’s behalf after obtaining consent to serve as the client’s authorized representative.
At least two states have been approved to streamline the process to determine whether individuals are unable to meet certain work requirements. (Though the Families First Coronavirus Response Act suspended the time limit nationwide, states that receive funding to offer a slot in a work or training program to individuals subject to the time limit can still apply the time limit to those individuals unless they have “good cause” for not meeting the requirements. Similarly, states can determine whether an individual has good cause not to comply with more general SNAP work requirements for which they could otherwise be sanctioned. One of the waivers streamlines the process to determine whether individuals subject to the time limit who are offered slots in training programs have good cause, and the other streamlines this good-cause determination for individuals subject to SNAP’s general work requirements.)