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Wolf Administration Wants More Flexibility In Administering Food Assistance During Pandemic

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
Nearly two million Pennsylvanians are now enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Pennsylvania's ability to provide food assistance benefits without in-person interviews is set to expire July 31, and Gov. Tom Wolf is asking the federal government to extend waivers related to the program during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Without an additional waiver, the state will be required to resume in-person interviews to determine who is eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP on August 1. In a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Wolf requested a 90-day waiver, rather than the traditional 30 days.

“This would create greater predictability for states and allow for greater efficiency in operations as the certainty would eliminate the need to reapply for waivers each month,” Wolf wrote.

Statewide enrollment in SNAP has increased by nearly 190,000 people since February, a jump of roughly 10 percent. State Health and Human Services Secretary Theresa Miller says the economic recession caused by the pandemic is to blame for the additional need, and that it would be premature to end these waivers this summer.

“Continuing to be smart and safe about the way we operate and not doing in-person interviews, for example, that’s just going to make sense going forward,” Miller said. “Our fear is that the federal government seems to want to get back to normal faster than I think we’re going to be able to do that safely.”

Miller pointed out that unemployment benefits will soon be scaled back significantly, when an extra $600 in weekly payments provided under the federal CARES Act ends on July 31. She said she expects enrollment in SNAP and other public assistance programs to continue to increase through the summer and into fall.

“Unless further action comes from Congress and the federal government to extend additional unemployment assistance or make an additional stimulus payment, people in Pennsylvania and across the country may soon find themselves in increasingly uncertain circumstances,” Miller said.

Other waivers set to expire July 31 include a suspension of efforts to collect overpayments to SNAP recipients, and an extension of the timeline for appeal and disqualification hearings. Three other waiver extension requests are outstanding and are set to expire June 30, including the extension of emergency allotments to SNAP households who aren’t currently maxing out their benefits.

President Donald Trump has been bullish in his approach to reopening the economy. He initially said things would begin to reopen on Easter. Two months later, as restrictions are lifting, infection numbers are surging rapidly in states including Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida. Even Allegheny County, where case counts have been relatively low overall, has seen an uptick in infections over the past several days.

The USDA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.