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Thursday, November 30, 2023
Nov. 30, 2023

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States strive to help SNAP recipients cope with lower benefits

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The white words on a red background are plain. “Important notice: SNAP emergency allotments ending after February.”

If there’s any doubt, the Colorado Department of Human Services SNAP webpage adds, “All Coloradans who receive SNAP benefits are going to see a reduction in their monthly benefit amount after February.”

In every state, participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, face the loss of pandemic-related benefits in March, if they haven’t already lost them. States, community groups and food banks are scrambling to help families cope and gear up for an expected wave of food hardship.

“People are scared. They’re anxious. This is a devastating change,” Karla Maraccini, director of the Food and Energy Assistance Division of the Colorado Department of Human Services, told Stateline. “We want to make sure nobody is caught off guard in March.”

Colorado has a new, toll-free SNAP phone line and its SNAP website includes tips for the transition and a Food Finder link to locate the closest food pantry.

The average SNAP participant in states that still had emergency allotments as of February will receive $90 less a month in benefits, according to an analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank.

“We’re saying these families face a hunger cliff — more hardship and more food insecurity. People don’t have a cushion,” Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director for the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger advocacy group, told Stateline.

In March 2020, as COVID-19 swept the nation and the economy shut down, Congress gave states the authority to ease application and eligibility requirements for SNAP and to hike benefits with temporary emergency allotments.

The allotments were expected to last for the duration of the federal public health emergency in states that also had declared a public health emergency. But Congress in December passed a bipartisan federal spending package that ended SNAP allotments as of February 2023.

By the end of last year, 17 states had dropped state public health emergency status, meaning SNAP recipients in those states no longer received extra benefits.

The end of the federal public health emergency, recently set for May 11, will trigger other changes in SNAP that lower some benefits. Plus, Republicans in Congress are eyeing SNAP for potential cuts in the debt limit debate. The federal government pays for all SNAP benefits.

The spending package that ended the allotments early also established a permanent Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer for Children food service program. Families eligible for free or reduced-price school lunches will receive a monthly $40 grocery benefit per child when school is out starting in 2024.

The Summer EBT program is “the most significant new nationwide nutrition program in the last 50 years,” according to Vince Hall, chief government relations officer at Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic anti-hunger network. But, he said, “as critical as it is, it is not a replacement for solving the nutritional needs of the whole family.”

More than 41 million people purchased food with SNAP benefits last year, up from about 36 million in 2019, and the emergency allotments represented a huge inflow of federal funds to states.

In recent months, nearly $3 billion a month in additional benefits went to the states where the allotments were still in effect, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

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“I’m not aware of any state trying to replace the emergency allotments,” said Ed Bolen, director of SNAP State Strategies at the center.

The end of the allotments comes as state legislatures are in session and legislators are writing budgets for the next fiscal year, and a few states are taking steps to lessen the impact of lower benefits. But so far, New Jersey is the only state this year to enact SNAP legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Garden State has twice raised the monthly minimum SNAP benefit — to $50 last year and to $95 this year. In most states, the regular monthly minimum SNAP benefit is $23 — and that’s after increases in 2021 and 2022.

The new minimum benefit in New Jersey mostly will help older people and those with disabilities, whose incomes have risen due to cost-of-living increases in Social Security, said Carlos Rodriguez, president and CEO of the Community Food Bank of New Jersey. A higher income leads to a decrease in SNAP benefits.

His organization, which distributed food for more than 86 million meals last year, is preparing for increased demand by buying more food at higher costs because of inflation.

A household survey in December by Propel, a company that makes software SNAP recipients use to track their benefits and other financial products, found that 30% of respondents visited a food pantry in the last 30 days in states where emergency allotments were no longer being issued, compared with 22% of respondents in states still issuing emergency allotments.

In 2023 so far, lawmakers in 27 states and the District of Columbia have introduced at least 131 bills to strengthen SNAP by expanding access to the program, decreasing food and nutrition-related costs and providing emergency food aid, according to the conference of state legislatures.

A bill introduced Feb. 15 in California would establish a $50 state minimum benefit in the CalFresh program by January 2025. CalFresh is California’s SNAP program.

Last year, Maryland raised the minimum monthly SNAP benefit to $40 for those 62 and older. It was one of a dozen states that enacted 24 laws aimed at expanding or enhancing SNAP, according to the conference of state legislatures.

In January, Massachusetts Democratic Gov. Maura Healey proposed spending $130 million to provide a bridge for more than 630,000 Massachusetts families, who would receive a supplemental allotment equal to 40% of the federal benefit for three months.

The array of state and federal safety-net programs, often with different eligibility rules, can be bewildering, so states are urging people to seek help determining the benefits for which they qualify.

North Carolina, for example, is encouraging pregnant women and mothers to sign up for the Women, Infants and Children food program. In addition, the statewide NCCare360 network is available to connect North Carolinians to health care, employment, housing and social services.

“We know even though the emergency allotments are coming to an end, the need is still there,” said Madhu Vulimiri, deputy director of the Division of Child and Family Well-Being in the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the SNAP program.

The bottom line: “People will have less money to spend at the grocery store,” said Effie Rorke, senior director of public policy and communications at Feeding Colorado, the state association for Colorado’s five food banks, adding the need for food remained high throughout the pandemic.

“We serve a lot of people who are working or don’t get enough hours. Often food is the only item where they have a little wiggle room,” she said.

The Food Bank of the Rockies’ 800 members serve about half a million people a year over a wide swath of Colorado and all of Wyoming.

“We’re not fully meeting the need now,” said Erin Pulling, president and CEO of the Food Bank of the Rockies. She and her partners are ramping up food purchases, donations and fundraising and lobbying the state for more resources.

Thinking of the end of the allotments, Princess Mack, 53, of Aurora, Colorado, who shops with SNAP benefits for herself and two teenage daughters, said, “Does it make me nervous? It does.”

Before the extra benefits, she regularly visited a food pantry — something she hasn’t needed to do in years. But she’s prepared to go back.

“I’m not as panicky as some,” she said.

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