Connecting state and local government leaders
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is resuming pre-coronavirus application and renewal requirements for food stamps. Washington, D.C. created a mobile public benefits app that officials hope will make it easier for recipients to apply and meet eligibility requirements.
The job loss associated with the coronavirus pandemic brought with it an onslaught of new applications for food stamps. To help states manage the influx, the U.S. Department of Agriculture allowed states to waive some of the application and renewal requirements associated with the program.
But in recent months, the department has begun to reject waiver applications from states, forcing agencies that administer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to prepare for the heavy workload that will follow.
To simplify the process, Washington, D.C.’s Department of Human Services designed an online portal and mobile app that allows SNAP recipients to submit applications, paperwork and documentation remotely. The online system should help staff with the surge of paperwork associated with new applications and the restart of the recertification process, which involves reviewing documents and conducting interviews, said DHS Director Laura Zeilinger.
The department was already in the midst of a modernization project to upgrade its benefits system, but the need to do work remotely, coupled with the increased workload that accompanied the pandemic, led the department to bump up its timeframe for the online platform.
Since the DC Access mobile app was launched in June, it’s been downloaded more than 8,600 times and used for 3,300 new applications.
The SNAP or food stamps program requires recipients to provide documentation like pay stubs, leases and utility bills to prove they’re eligible for benefits. Using the app, D.C. recipients have uploaded more than 6,000 documents to date—paperwork that staff would previously have had to collect from applicants and enter into the system themselves. The online system automatically enters the paperwork and documentation into a recipient’s file, but it’s still a “tremendous process” to renew food stamp applications, Zeilinger said.
“We are trying to be as nimble as we can be, but our staff has not grown,” she said.
Another benefit of the system is that it allows applicants to see the process of their application or renewal, and the app sends push notifications to users when they are due to recertify, Zeilinger said. She cites the notifications as a particularly important benefit given the mail delays and other problems affecting the U.S. Postal Service.
Across the country, more than 6 million people began receiving food stamps during the first three months of the coronavirus pandemic.
Amid the influx, public officials highlighted the need for flexibility as state and local agencies try to keep up with the rising demand.
The American Public Human Services Association this month asked lawmakers to preserve states’ authority to utilize waivers for SNAP interview requirements and certification periods.
“These flexibilities are fundamental to giving states a range of tools that can be adapted to their specific circumstances and business processes that ensures children and families can continue to receive the benefits they need to weather the duration of the pandemic,” the association wrote to congressional leaders.
A group of state attorneys general, led by D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine, wrote to the USDA last month to ask that the agency continue to issue SNAP waivers.
“These waivers provide much-needed flexibility that have allowed state and local SNAP agencies to meet the influx in demand for SNAP benefits while operating remotely, which in turn has limited exposure to Covid-19 for both SNAP recipients and agency employees,” Racine wrote.
He argued that if states have to resume the interviews and other administrative tasks associated with recertification, SNAP benefits could be delayed as agencies become overwhelmed with the volume of work.
While the DC Access app will make it easier for the District’s Department of Human Services to administer benefits programs, Zeilinger said she hopes USDA will reconsider its decision to stop issuing waivers.
“Nobody in the District of Columbia should be hungry because they can’t get SNAP benefits,” she said.
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.