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Even with the expanded benefits for out-of-work people, millions of families had to sign up for food stamps during the early months of the pandemic. Now even more people are expected to need the assistance.
More than 6 million people began receiving food stamps during the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic—a number experts say is likely to rise now that Congress has allowed enhanced unemployment benefits to lapse.
And that could lead to backlogs for state agencies tasked with administering the food safety net program.
Out-of-work Americans who received the extra $600 a week in enhanced federal unemployment benefits during the pandemic have been unable to qualify for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP]. The payments counted as income used to determine eligibility for the food stamp program, meaning those who received the benefit made too much to qualify.
But the enhanced benefits expired this month and Congress has yet to approve an extension. As a result, many unemployed workers who were initially excluded from SNAP could now be eligible, said Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research and Action Center.
With upwards of 1 million new unemployment claims filed each week for the last several weeks, there continues to be great need for food assistance programs, she said.
“There is nothing right now that looks like the need is abating,” Vollinger said. “The notion that the economy is going to get back to a decent situation where people are not going to need SNAP is unrealistic.”
The Pennsylvania State Department Of Human Services is bracing for an uptick in the coming weeks, Secretary Teresa Miller told KDKA Radio this week.
"We could in the coming weeks see more of an influx of applications as people find themselves just not able to put food on the table and just find themselves in a different economic situation,” Miller said. “So, we are certainly preparing for that and hope that we can meet that need.”
At the same time SNAP enrollments are poised to increase, states will have to oversee renewals for previous enrollments, which could result in state systems being crushed by a backlog of applications needing to processed, the American Public Human Services Association warned in a statement issued this week.
The association is urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to provide states with more flexibility, such as extending the certification periods, which the group said would allow agencies “to keep up with the unprecedented volume of cases due in the upcoming months.”
“Without the adjustments needed to manage caseloads within resource constraints, states are at risk to fall behind in delivering benefits to children and families and see backslides in program integrity,” the association said.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, who chairs the House Agriculture Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations Subcommittee, this week introduced legislation that would allow states to extend SNAP certification periods, adjust periodic reporting and interview requirements for recipients through June 2021 without requiring them to obtain USDA approval.
“This is something USDA is doing broadly now, and should continue doing to make sure hungry Americans—including children, seniors and individuals with disabilities—have enough to eat,” she said.
A coronavirus relief proposal introduced this week by Senate Republicans does not include any additional funding for SNAP, though a Democrat-drafted bill passed by the House in May would increase SNAP benefits by 15%.
Democrats and Republicans trying to broker a deal to pass the next round of coronavirus relief before lawmakers August recess.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.