States Are Using Much-Needed Temporary Flexibility in SNAP to Respond to COVID-19 Challenges
Since March, states have been using temporary SNAP (food stamp) flexibility to provide emergency benefit supplements, maintain benefits to households with children missing school meals, and ease program administration during the pandemic. These options have allowed states to deliver more food assistance to struggling families, help manage rising and ongoing administrative demands, and ensure that participants maintain much-needed benefits.
The administrative flexibility has also facilitated unprecedented growth in SNAP participation to meet increased need and ensure that families experiencing hardship can quickly get benefits to buy food. But the Agriculture Department (USDA) has suggested that it may begin limiting approvals of some of these key flexibilities in September. Given that states will face increased need and administrative challenges for months to come, extending this flexibility as needed would help states continue to provide SNAP in a timely manner and help families struggling with increased hardship.
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, and data have shown a sharp increase in the number of families reporting difficulty affording adequate food. SNAP is essential to helping these families put food on the table.
As we’ve explained, the Families First Coronavirus Response Act provided 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 law, USDA has encouraged states to use existing program flexibility.
All states have boosted emergency supplementary benefits for at least three months and many for up to six months; the vast majority have taken steps to ease SNAP administration and maintain participation; and almost all have been approved for school meal replacement benefits, the below tables show. Except in the case of Pandemic EBT and online purchasing pilots, shown in Table 3, these flexibilities are temporary and contingent on both a federal public health emergency and a state issuance of an emergency or disaster declaration. USDA originally approved most waivers through May and has required states to request extensions each month for June, July, and August. It has suggested it will not approve many of these extensions past August, threatening administrative complexity and loss of key additional benefits for participants.
Families First allows states to:
Increase benefits to meet immediate rising need. The Act provided 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; 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. Those households would benefit from this provision, which would provide them with the maximum benefit. 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, either March and April or April and May. USDA may approve states to 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, with states providing up to six months of these allotments to date (March through August). Table 2 below shows the months for which these allotments have been approved to date.
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 was closed in the 2019-2020 school year and who otherwise would have received free or reduced-price meals. Though many states needed time to overcome administrative challenges, almost all states have now selected the option, with most having issued these benefits by mid-summer. (Table 3 shows these states that have adopted it.) These programs replace meals lost during the 2019-2020 school year and can be issued retroactively when schools were closed, or in some cases when students gained eligibility during the school year if they gained eligibility for free or reduced-price meals after school closures began. P-EBT doesn’t require a state public health or emergency declaration.
- Extend certification periods and adjust reporting requirements. Every month a portion of SNAP participants ordinarily must submit paperwork and complete an interview to continue receiving benefits. As Table 1 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. USDA originally denied most requests for July extensions, and while it has since approved more states for waivers through July and August, it has suggested it won’t approve waivers past August. States are continuing to see rising SNAP applications, and when these waivers expire, states will have to process these renewals while managing new applications. Continuing to allow states to modify these requirements would allow states to better manage their workload and quickly get benefits in the hands of SNAP participants.
- 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 allows 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 has helped states process applications in the current environment where offices are closed and not all clients can access online applications. USDA has also allowed states to extend this waiver through June and July.
- Modify quality control processes by shifting in-person case reviews to remote reviews, 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. USDA has approved state extensions of this waiver through June for 49 states, and has recently notified states that they may extend this waiver through September 2020. (These waivers are shown in Table 1.) USDA has given all states and territories participating in SNAP an extension of the deadlines for reporting findings from households that were reviewed in December 2019, or January or February 2020, and has also allowed all states and territories participating in SNAP to cancel reviews for the months of March, April, and May. (These blanket flexibilities are not shown in Table 1.)
Waive other requirements, such as the application interview, to better manage new applications. In addition to taking steps to ensure participants can continue getting benefits, states have requested waivers to accommodate what in many states has been a dramatic rise in new applications. Given the large increase in unemployment and hardship in recent months that will likely continue, states have seen and will likely continue to see large SNAP application increases for months to come. State SNAP agencies have had to 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, and most have received extensions of this waiver through June. As with the waivers to extend certification periods, USDA initially denied most requests to extend these waivers through July, then later allowed July and August extensions, but is now indicating it wouldn’t approve them past August. 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 have pursued 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, and now most states have such a program, shown in Table 3. Online purchasing is limited to state-approved retailers, which in all states include Walmart and/or Amazon, as well as others such as Wright’s Markets, Inc. in Alabama; ShopRite in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania; and the FreshGrocer in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. This waiver allows individuals receiving SNAP benefits to get the food they require while adhering to social distancing rules. Because these programs are independent of the Families First Act, they are not subject to the same emergency declaration requirements.
USDA has also approved many other waivers that will temporarily suspend some administrative requirements for states, not shown in the tables below.
USDA has also denied state waiver requests, some of which USDA has detailed in a 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.
Table 1 below shows the waivers and options that states have adopted and the extensions they’ve been granted. Table 2 shows the months that states have been approved to provide emergency allotments, and Table 3 shows the states that have adopted two options that haven’t been extended: P-EBT and online purchasing. We will update them as states modify their approach to these options and USDA approves extensions.
|State USDA-Approved SNAP Waivers and Options, as of August 6, 2020|
|State||Extend certification periods, adjust reporting requirement (approved through May 31, June 30, July 31, August 31)||Adapt telephonic signature requirements (approved through May 31, June 30, July 31)||Grant flexibility for quality control interviews (approved through May 31, June 30)||Waive initial/ recertification interview and other interview adjustments (approved through May 31, June 30, July 31, August 31)|
|District of Columbia||X||X||X||X|
|State Emergency Allotments and Extensions by Month, as of August 6, 2020|
|State||March||April||May||June (Extension)||July (Extension)||August (Extension)|
|District of Columbia||X||X||X||X||X||X|
|State USDA-Approved Options, as of August 6, 2020|
|State||Provide benefits for households with children missing school meals (P-EBT)||Pilot an online purchasing program|
|District of Columbia||X||X|
August 6, 2020
 States were originally approved to provide emergency allotments for two months, either March and April or April and May; with these extensions, states have so far provided up to six months of allotments (March through August).
 The original interview waivers included three major adjustments of normal SNAP requirements for state agencies. The waivers allowed states to approve new households without conducting the normally required interview; allowed states not to offer a face-to-face interview or grant one upon request; and allowed states to certify households with very low income eligible for expedited service to be approved without an interview. The original waivers included all three, but some extensions for July and August include just some of those components.
 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 25 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.) All of these states have had these waivers extended through June, and some 13 states have received July extensions.
At least 23 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. All of these states have had these waivers extended through June, and 12 states have received July extensions.
At least four 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), and two states have received extensions through July.
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, and these waivers have been extended through July.
At least two states have received approval to delay notices that states must issue to households with multiple EBT card replacement requests.
Three 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, and USDA has approved these through July.
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.)