Pa. coronavirus recovery: State asks for more flexibility for SNAP benefits

A man buys groceries in a supermarket.

A man buys groceries in a supermarket. (Danny Moloshok/AP Photo)

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Governor Tom Wolf sent a letter Wednesday to the United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, urging the USDA to extend waivers that give states flexibility to safely provide public benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic, and prevent interruption in services.

The flexibilities granted by waivers from the USDA allow SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, to reduce in-person interactions between Department of Human Service staff and clients, in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The USDA has extended some waivers from June 30 to July 31. These waivers include replacing face-to-face quality control interviews with phone calls, giving DHS staff more time to conduct appeals and disqualification hearings due to a backlog of cases, and allowing the state’s Office of Inspector General to pause recoupment if SNAP benefits are overpaid.

The state is requesting that the USDA have a 90-day extension instead of 30 days, to allow for improved efficiency and preparedness, and to eliminate the need to reapply for waivers every month.

Pennsylvania Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller spoke of the importance of SNAP and the waivers during a press conference Wednesday.

“We’re starting to hear comments from the federal government when we meet with them that, ‘We need to get back to the way it was before,’ and, ‘We need to get back to some sense of normal here,’ and our fear is that means those flexibilities are going to go away. If we don’t know way in advance that waivers are not going to continue, then we need to start planning and get guidance ready for our staff and stakeholders,” she said.

“This pandemic is not going away any time soon … and our fear is the federal government just seems to want to get back to normal faster than I think we’re going to be able to do safely. It doesn’t make sense to have face-to-face interviews right now in the middle of a pandemic. But let’s make sure the people have the benefits they need to get food on their table. This is a nutritional program, this is not a welfare program. This is a program that helps make sure people don’t go hungry in our communities. And it’s a great partner, along with our charitable food network, to make sure people have enough food on our tables. So, it’s very frustrating to see the federal government attack this program over and over.”

She said she believes the economic impact of the pandemic will continue for several weeks.

Pennsylvania has seen a 9.7% increase in SNAP enrollments, or about 190,000 more people on SNAP, since February. This increase is not the same as the number of applications, which has decreased, however.

The state believes that increase is partly because it’s not disenrolling people on a regular basis, as it usually does when it doesn’t have the paperwork it needs to keep people enrolled.

The state has also had 118,000 more Medicaid enrollments since February.

State officials expect to see a larger surge in the coming months.

“When you think about past recessions, in those past recessions, we typically didn’t have things like the stimulus payment, the Pandemic Unemployment Compensation,” Miller said.

“With the stimulus payments and Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, people are perhaps not feeling the impacts as much as they might shortly. That was only a one-time stimulus payment that was months ago at this point, and the pandemic unemployment compensation goes away at the end of July. I think as we get on into the summer, we may very well see that spike we haven’t seen yet.”

DHS also wants waivers to extend SNAP certification periods so recipients don’t have to submit additional paperwork to maintain benefits, and to adjust interview requirements that run the risk of slowing down the process of receiving benefits.

Wolf also urged the USDA to continue to allow states to extend emergency SNAP allotments to current SNAP households, which allow an additional payment to SNAP households that do not receive the maximum monthly benefit for their household. States lose the authority to issue the supplemental payments if the federal or state disaster declarations are withdrawn.

Without these emergency SNAP allotments, state officials say Pennsylvania would lose $100 million per month in additional federal funds awarded to grocers, farmers markets, and other small businesses, and SNAP recipients would receive only the normal benefit amount.

“As the nation faces the COVID-19 pandemic, access to essential needs like food is more important than ever to help keep people healthy and mitigate co-occurring health risks. We cannot allow our current circumstances to make matters more difficult for disadvantaged people in Pennsylvania and around the country,” Wolf’s letter reads.

“Our actions in the weeks and months to come will shape not just our response to this pandemic, but also the world we will accept when COVID-19 is no longer a threat. Preserving access to this critical resource and food access in these communities is the least we must do to be sure that this pandemic does not further define inequity in these communities for generations to come.”

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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