Recipients, advocates brace for end of pandemic-era safety net expansion
Hill District resident Allison White will be grocery shopping “very, very sparingly” this month.
That’s because she and more than 1.9 million other Pennsylvania residents are going to see a major cut in March to the food assistance they had been receiving during the pandemic.
For White and her daughter, both of whom work, they’ll go from more than $500 in monthly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to about $100. The end of this pandemic-related assistance means households receiving SNAP — commonly called food stamps — will be losing an average of $181 per month in Pennsylvania.
“You can’t get ahead,” White said. “You’re getting paid [at work], but they’re taking every resource away from you.”
For much of the pandemic, the government’s safety net generally expanded; some assistance programs became easier to access through waived paperwork requirements, some covered more people, or — like SNAP — provided more generous benefits than in pre-pandemic times. Several completely new programs were created.
“The pandemic was like a wild experiment in what is possible, I think,” said Ann Sanders, a policy advocate at Pittsburgh-based anti-hunger organization Just Harvest.
But, like the food assistance White and others are losing, that’s mostly ended or about to end.
While many changes were always intended to be temporary, the loss of the food assistance comes at an especially bad time, social service providers say, because inflation has pushed grocery prices far higher than they were when the pandemic began.
Furthermore, starting April 1, normal re-enrollments will resume for the state’s 3.6 million Medical Assistance recipients for the first time in three years. (While many of these people will still be eligible for Medicaid or low-cost coverage via the state health care marketplace, advocates are concerned, if the transition isn’t handled smoothly, thousands of people could lose their healthcare coverage.)
“A lot of social service programs for low-income people, and those in moderate income situations who needed assistance, expanded — as they should have all along,” said Dave Coplan, executive director of the nonprofit Human Services Center Mon Valley, which runs a number of youth and community programs, including a food pantry out of its Turtle Creek campus.
“These were smart changes to ensure a safety net for people. It’s not a good idea to pull the rug from people at this moment in time,” Coplan said.
Other pandemic-related benefits already ended last year or in 2021, as money ran out for temporary programs, or Congress chose not to extend them.
“We're going back to what was the normal before the pandemic. As we go back to that, I think it's becoming more and more apparent that what was normal before the pandemic was not helpful or sustainable for a lot of families,” said Sanders.
Among the aid that’s already ended:
- An expanded child tax credit made monthly payments to many middle-income and poor families with children for much of 2021 (The credit had existed prior to the pandemic but was smaller and had not been paid out monthly).
- Rental assistance programs were successful in staving off a potential wave of pandemic-related evictions, but those are largely over except for some remaining pre-pandemic programs, which operate at a much smaller scale.
- A new, federally funded state-run water bill assistance program ended in October after its federal funds were exhausted.
- Universal free school meals for all students have ended.
- Expanded Unemployment Insurance benefits for more workers also ended.
Sharon Parrott, president of the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said the programs were successful in mitigating the economic harm that would have otherwise happened.
“We actually saw poverty go down and the number of people with health coverage go up. … Right now most of those things have expired or will soon be expiring and those gains that we made against poverty, unfortunately, are very likely to be largely reversing because those kinds of supports are no longer in place.”
What happened during the pandemic “proved how effective some expansions of programs are, especially the child tax credit, which effectively cut child poverty in half,” Sanders said. “And it also showed that politically that did not matter, apparently, it did not matter to our current elected officials because the fact that child poverty rates were cut in half for a year was not enough to make them have that program become permanent. So that — I think — is very disheartening, to say the least.”
As the last of these expanded programs now wind down, many advocates say they’re worried about the unmet needs that remain, particularly related to food. Food banks have said they will not be able to fully replace the SNAP aid that is ending, which Sanders noted is close to $200 million a month statewide.
While most of the expanded assistance is over, there are a smaller number of programs that remain — enhanced subsidies for Affordable Care Act marketplace coverage remain in place, and Congress also created a permanent summer food assistance program. Advocates also point to some improvements in convenience for certain programs, which allow more phone or online enrollments than were possible pre-pandemic. And some programs may yet return: advocates say they are especially hopeful an expanded Child Tax Credit will eventually be made permanent in some form.
That doesn’t make the loss of food assistance sting any less for people impacted though.
“In the meantime, they’re leaving all these people stranded,” White said.