The estimated economic impacts of the COVID-19 emergency are staggering—millions of Americans are out of work or experiencing a decrease in hours. Thousands of businesses are shuttered and some may never reopen. Over 16 million new people have applied for unemployment since March, roughly half of the number of claims filed during 2008’s Great Recession.1
COVID-19’s effect on the economy is hitting some industries harder than others—specifically, transportation, retail, hospitality, and food services.2 These industries employ nearly a quarter of U.S. workers, most of whom are low-income, hourly workers more at risk of financial insecurity.3 This means that safety net programs are more critical than ever, and one way that states are responding is through increased flexibility in their rules for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
TANF helps keep low-income families together and meet their basic needs, while encouraging and promoting work. As a block grant program, TANF was designed for maximum flexibility. This flexibility is particularly crucial right now as states wrestle with designing or adjusting the program to best help those impacted by the emergency. States are primarily employing two flexibilities in their TANF program—offering non-recurrent short-term benefits (NRST) and relaxing the work requirements.
Non-Recurrent Short-Term Benefits
Tennessee was one of the first states to offer NRST through its Emergency Cash Assistance program. “Needy” families are defined as having either experienced the loss of a job or the loss of at least 50 percent of earned income due to the COVID-19 emergency. Families can receive up to two months of this emergency cash assistance, with benefit amounts varying from $500 to $1,000 based on family size.
Residents of Virginia can access two TANF programs depending on their circumstance.
- The Diversionary Assistance program, another example of an NRST, provides a one-time payment intended to help families experiencing an emergency. Like in Tennessee, eligible families must have experienced a loss of income, a reduction in their income, or a delay in the receipt of their income.
- The Temporary Emergency Assistance program provides a one-time payment of $500 to current TANF recipients. A similar one-time payment of $500 is also being made available to current TANF recipients in West Virginia.
Ohio’s Prevention, Retention, Contingency (PRC) program is another example of a TANF-funded NRST program designed to help families experiencing an emergency. Champaign and Sandusky Counties recently revised their PRC plan to allow for families experiencing the loss of employment or income due to COVID-19 to be eligible for a one-time $500 payment.
Four states have employed flexibility with TANF’s work requirements.
- Arizona is waiving all TANF work requirements for the duration of the state of emergency. Families who failed to meet their work requirements in the month of March will not be sanctioned.
- Illinois is giving good cause to people who cannot participate and comply with the work requirements due to COVID-19.
- Indiana elected to waive the work requirements for families who are applying for TANF through the end of the state’s public health emergency.
- Florida is the only state to suspend the work requirements for both TANF and SNAP.
SNAP is the most fundamental safety-net program available in the United States. It is designed to expand in times of need—seen clearly during the Great Recession in 2008. Unlike TANF, SNAP is available to both families and childless adults. In contrast to TANF’s block grant design, SNAP is heavily regulated at the federal level with some flexibility through state options and waivers. The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) website shows that 358 waivers had been submitted since mid-March 2020, 59 percent of which have been approved. States or territories have submitted an average of 10 waivers.
In general, states are submitting waivers focused on increasing access to SNAP—making it easier for an individual to apply for and keep their SNAP benefits. The most approved waivers are:
- Emergency allotments for current SNAP households. This waiver allows states to issue a supplement to current SNAP households, bringing their monthly allotment up to the maximum allotment for their household size. This additional purchasing power is crucial as it frees up money to be spent on other basic needs. All but two states have requested this waiver. Twenty-five states have submitted documentation that they will be extending the emergency allotments for May 2020.
- Extending the certification period. Forty-seven states or territories have requested a waiver that extends the certification period. This will make it easier for households to continue receiving SNAP and it also allows states to concentrate their efforts on processing new applications. Several states have requested extensions to their initial waiver given the ongoing nature of the COVID-19 emergency.
- Adjusting interview requirements. States have the option to adjust SNAP interview requirements, including conducting interview by phone and delaying the interview if certain verification requirements are met. More than half of states have taken this option.
- Telephonic signature. Fourteen states have been approved to use a telephonic signature at application. This will help keep applicants out of the office and speed up the application process.
- Overpayment claims. Seventeen states have submitted or been approved for waivers that will temporarily suspend collection on SNAP overpayments, both new and active. This allows SNAP recipients to temporarily receive their full benefit, increasing their purchasing power.
On April 10, the FNS published a blanket denial for several types of waivers. Unlike the approved waivers, which are geared toward increasing program access, these waivers have the potential to negatively impact SNAP program integrity. One example was a waiver submitted by 27 states to waive the restrictions on student eligibility. Under this waiver, students attending an institute of higher education would not need to meet the strict rules to qualify for SNAP during this emergency. This denial is a stark contrast to the FNS response in supporting K–12 children, who may be eligible for the Pandemic EBT program.
SNAP’s Unique Response to COVID-19
There are several ways in which SNAP has uniquely responded to the COVID-19 crisis.
- Michigan and Rhode Island were the first states to operate a Pandemic EBT program, which issues SNAP benefits for children would have qualified for free or reduced-price meals but are not able to access them due to school closure. Under this program, families will receive a monthly allotment that is based on the value of school meals at the free rate for a specific time period for each eligible child in the household. This program operates independently of SNAP, meaning a household can receive benefits from both programs. A total of 21 states are now operating the program.
- SNAP recipients in 12 states can now purchase food online from Amazon and Wal-Mart through the SNAP online pilot. An additional 11 states will be implementing this option in May/June 2020. The massive expansion of this pilot can have a tremendous impact on SNAP recipients, particularly those who are elderly or disabled and therefore more at-risk for COVID-19.