More Pennsylvanians will likely need help paying for groceries as the economy remains shutdown due to the coronavirus. But as the pandemic pokes holes in social safety net programs, there are new obstacles for food stamps recipients.
Congress provided additional funding in one of its coronavirus relief packages for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), often known as food stamp benefits.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, said it would boost everyone in the program to receive the maximum allotment, which ranges from $194 for a one-person houseshold up to $646 for a family of four.
“They thought of it as just topping off everyone’s benefit amount, so bring everyone up to the maximum amount that a household can get,” said Ann Sanders, public policy advocate at Just Harvest.
For example, a senior citizen on Social Security who previously received $20 in food stamps would get the maximum for a one-person household — $194.
Sanders said that’s a good thing, but SNAP recipients who already receive the maximum amount — about 40 percent of people on the program — will see no increase in support.
“The way it’s structured, a single person who has no income, who relies solely on that $194 a month and doesn’t have any other source of income, is not going to see any emergency allotment,” Sanders said. “And we know that those very low-income households tend to be the ones that don’t have anything at all extra in their cupboards. They’re the ones that tend to run out by the end of the month.”
Sanders said people who qualify for additional benefits will receive the emergency allotment (for both March and April) 10-15 days after they get their standard monthly benefit this month.
Nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians rely on food stamps, but that number is expected to increase as the pandemic continues. When SNAP recipients in Pennsylvania actually get their typical monthly allotment can vary. In Allegheny County, food stamps distribution is staggered throughout the first ten days of the month. People in smaller, less populous places like Beaver County receive their benefits on the third day of the month.
Sanders and other advocates say the uneven distribution stems from the way the aid package was written.
“The language in the bill was written in a way that allowed for flexibility of interpretation,” Sanders said. “So I can see why that’s what [the Trump administration] went with, but...it leaves more than a third of all food stamps households out of getting this emergency allotment.”
In a letter to to the U.S. Sec. of Agriculture Sonny Perdue last month, Gov. Tom Wolf addressed the USDA’s current interpretation of the bill, which Wolf argued was meant to expand benefits for all recipients:
“The legislation authorizes USDA to provide an additional emergency allotment to all households, up to the maximum benefit for their household size. Unfortunately, USDA is interpreting [this language] to allow states to raise SNAP benefits for each household up to the maximum benefit for the household size, without any additional allotment,” he wrote.
To attempt to solve the problem, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer want to boost maximum SNAP benefits by 15 percent in the next aid package, though it’s unclear if lawmakers can come to an agreement on that legislation.
This week, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey along with every Democrat in Pennsylvania’s Congressional delegation as well as Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, urged Congressional leadership to push for the increase in a public letter.
“Our food banks have already seen a rapid increase in demand from customers who are in need of additional food assistance,” the letter read. “The average SNAP benefits provided in Pennsylvania comes to only $1.31 per meal, or $129 per month, and we know that many families are forced to use up their entire benefit early in the month.”
The lawmakers also pushed for provisions that would allow people on SNAP to buy groceries without having to go to a grocery store. Most states require people to use their benefits at a store, which means food stamps recipients cannot use an online delivery service. Those who are elderly or who have underlying health conditions have to put themselves at risk to buy food.
In his March letter, Wolf said Pennsylvania retailers are “already interested in providing these options to customers” and that the USDA should make grocery delivery available for all SNAP beneficiaries who need it.