As food insecurity soars among families with children and a slate of federal benefits is set to expire later this month, a critical anti-hunger tool has yet to be implemented, leaving at least 2.7 million kids without assistance.
Advocates spent much of the summer urging legislators to extend Pandemic-EBT, a program Congress created in March that gave families grocery money—from $250 to $450 per school-age child—to offset the loss of breakfasts and lunches while schools were closed. Finally, in October, Congress agreed to extend the program through the 2020-21 school year. But the chaos of school re-openings this fall has disrupted the rollout, and no state has disbursed P-EBT benefits to eligible families for the current school year.
In the meantime, a spike in Covid-19 cases and deaths has prompted new lockdown measures across the country, deepening the hardship for millions of families. The pandemic’s economic fallout has disproportionately burdened households with children and non-white families; 40 percent of Black and Latino families with school-age children are food-insecure, according to a report released last week by the Urban Institute. U.S. Census data from October and November confirm the scope of the crisis: an estimated 45 percent of U.S. children are living in households where adults are struggling to afford basic expenses.
The delays in administering P-EBT stem from the challenge of determining who qualifies when some schools are open, some are closed, and others are using a hybrid of in-person and virtual classes. The pandemic has forced districts across the country to constantly reassess safety protocols, with decisions to open or close sometimes being made from one day to the next as infection rates rise. During the spring semester of the 2019-20 school year, when Congress first authorized P-EBT, schools in most states shifted to online classes; in that round, kids who missed more than five consecutive days of in-person classes could receive benefits. That meant that the vast majority of students receiving free or reduced-price lunch automatically qualified for P-EBT.
To account for the changing circumstances, USDA spent weeks preparing new guidelines that states did not receive until Nov. 16—more than a month after P-EBT was reauthorized. Once they had the guidelines, states had to craft their own implementation plans and submit them to the USDA for approval.
In addition to eliminating the five-consecutive-day school closure rule, the updated guidelines extend P-EBT to children in SNAP households who have experienced a loss or reduction in childcare.
Anti-hunger advocates generally approve of the new guidelines, but they wonder why they could not have come sooner, given the urgency of rising need. “The changes for P-EBT 2.0 were not so drastic that it required USDA to spend this much time writing new guidance, when fundamentally states just had to come up with a plan that took into account their school schedules and how to provide benefits to newly eligible populations,” said Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “This USDA slow-walked the program and made it more complicated, and the consequence is a gap of months where these benefits have not been flowing.”
Others attribute the delay to a situation constantly in flux and the inevitable difficulty of crafting guidelines that will be useful to states with different needs. “We are a little frustrated that the benefits aren’t out yet, but we also need to make sure that states can set up strong plans to reach all eligible kids who need access [to P-EBT],” said Crystal FitzSimons, who directs the Food Research & Action Center’s work on the child nutrition programs. “It’s hard because we have been scrambling the entire pandemic to respond to what’s going on, and everything keeps shifting.”
The delays mean that families are likely to end the year without additional benefits. “We’re getting close to the holidays,” FitzSimons said. “We’re worried that benefits aren’t going to roll out until 2021.”
As was true during the first round of P-EBT, some states are better positioned than others to determine which families should receive funds. Michigan, for example, has strong student databases that made it easier to get benefits out the door in the spring. But others, like Louisiana, consistently ran into hurdles. For example, a privacy law barred school districts from sharing student information with other state agencies.
Now, southern states like Louisiana are facing new obstacles. “We’ve had so many hurricanes late into the season that state agencies have very limited capacity to submit a plan to USDA,” said Danny Mintz, the anti-hunger advocate at the Louisiana Budget Project, a nonprofit that serves low-income families.
Mintz said the delay was expected, but would have welcomed clearer guidance from USDA. “It would have been better to have ‘copy/paste’ guidance, with all the other factors our state is facing,” he said, noting that agencies are already struggling to administer disaster relief in addition to heightened benefits caseloads due to the pandemic. “Our caseworkers are burnt out. All that contributes to P-EBT coming out a lot later than advocates would have liked.”
Still, he stressed the importance of obtaining accurate information on eligible households. The pandemic’s innumerable economic disruptions—from job loss to evictions—further complicate the effort. Many families have been forced to move, but may not have updated their address with their school district, Mintz said. “It’s an incredibly volatile period for the neediest families, and that’s created challenges that are beyond USDA’s control.”
For Bauer, of the Brookings Institution, there were workarounds that could have mitigated ongoing delays. “A different USDA could have interpreted the situation quite differently,” she said. With so many kids missing school, “USDA and states could simplify the program by assuming that all children should receive benefits for every day of the 2020-21 school year, and get the money going. In the meantime, we’re again seeing extraordinarily high rates of food insecurity, and kids who don’t have enough to eat.”