SNAP eligibility rules will tighten despite coronavirus outbreak

At the same time he raised the possibility of pandemic benefits, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said on Tuesday that stricter SNAP time limits will take effect, as scheduled, on April 1 for able-bodied adults. House Democrats have suggested higher benefits and broader SNAP availability to carry low-income workers through quarantines and economic disruptions due to the new coronavirus.

Perdue said “P-SNAP” — P for pandemic — was “one of the potential solutions” that could be considered as part of an economic relief bill. President Trump met Republican senators over lunch at the Capitol to present his ideas, which included a payroll tax cut. During a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing, Perdue said any action on nutrition assistance should be part of a coordinated package.

“There might be a need for something like that now,” said Perdue, referring to a P-SNAP authorized a decade ago during an outbreak of H1N1 influenza. The program has expired, he said. USDA provides SNAP benefits after natural disasters — “D-SNAP” — to low-income families who lost food or income.

“Let’s look at that together,” said subcommittee chairman Sanford Bishop, Georgia Democrat.

In a related development, Alaska received a USDA waiver for meals to low-income children during school closures. Ordinarily, the meals, provided through the summer food program, must be served in a group setting. The waiver removes that requirement. A waiver request from Utah was pending and more requests were expected, said Perdue. The summer food program operates in areas where more than half of students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals. It reached 2.9 million pupils at latest count, one-seventh of the 22 million low-income children who get free or reduce-price food at school. California and Washington state also have waivers.

Perdue was adamant that more stringent enforcement of time limits on food stamps to able-bodied adults aged 18-49 without dependents (ABAWDs) will come into force on April 1. Since 1996, ABAWDs have been limited to 90 days of benefits in a three-year period unless they work at least 20 hours a week. An estimated 700,000 people will lose benefits under the Trump administration crackdown.

Some ABAWDs will lose benefits if employers curtail their hours during a coronavirus-caused economic slow-down, said Sanford and Rep Barbara Lee, California Democrat.

Not necessarily, said Perdue. “States are already authorized to provide a ‘good cause’ excuse” from meeting the work requirement. “That’s not a waiver type of issue.”

When Lee asked if USDA would postpone the ABAWD rule until the outbreak is quelled, Perdue replied, “We looked at delaying” and decided the “good cause” exemption was sufficient. The “ultimate, best thing” is to push people into employment, he said.

“If they can’t find work in an economy of 3.5 percent unemployment, I don’t know when they can.”

The spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has reached 37 states and Washington, D.C. Early this week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called for food security, paid sick leave and enhanced jobless benefits as part of economic relief. “We must expand SNAP, WIC, school lunch and other initiatives and suspend implementation of any regulations that weaken federal food assistance, in order to ensure vulnerable populations do not lose access to food during this epidemic,” they said. Bishop and Rep. Rosa DeLauro, a Connecticut Democrat, wrote Perdue on Monday to suspend work on regulations that would reduce SNAP benefits or eligibility and argued for an increase in benefits as an anti-recession tool.

SNAP benefits were increased temporarily by an average 17 percent in the economic stimulus package enacted in the wake of the 2008-09 recession. The increase amounted to $80 a month for a family of four.

Besides the ABAWD rule, the USDA is proceeding with two additional proposals that would end SNAP benefits for an additional 3 million people. The largest reduction would come from restrictions on so-called categorical eligibility, which allows states to modify asset tests and income limits so people who receive social services can be considered for SNAP. The third proposal, to change the formula for calculating utility costs, a factor in determining SNAP benefits, would affect fewer than 8,000 households, according to the USDA.

To watch a video of the hearing or to read Perdue’s written testimony, click here.