Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Impact of pandemic, federal assistance ballooned SNAP enrollments by 27%

by BIZ Magazine

By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor

Enrollment in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program ballooned by 27% to nearly 1 million Louisianans during the coronavirus pandemic, due in large part to federal rule changes.

Louisiana Legislative Auditor Mike Waguespack issued a report on growth in what’s commonly described as the federal food stamp program on Monday. The report, which came at the request of lawmakers, is centered on how COVID-19 impacted participation, benefit amounts and program administration.

“The number of SNAP recipients increased 27.5%, from 769,768 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020 to a high of 981,751 in January 2021,” the report read.

The report said that according to the Department of Children and Family Services that administers SNAP benefits, “the increase in participation was primarily attributed to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on employment and wages, which resulted in more households becoming eligible for SNAP.”

The report points to a more than 2,000% increase in unemployment claims, from 16,798 on Feb. 29, 2020 to 366,798 on April 25, 2020.

The auditor also cited flexibilities offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services that allowed states to extend certification periods and expand the program to college students.

The changes meant those who were in the program were not required to resubmit proof of eligibility, and closed cases were not removed from SNAP at the same rate as prior to the pandemic, auditors wrote.

“DCFS stated that it began requiring SNAP recipients to report certain changes in circumstances affecting eligibility in February 2023, and certification periods and reporting requirements will return to normal starting in February 2024,” according to the report. “DCFS expects to see a reduction in participation in March 2023 as it begins to close cases.”

SNAP participation has declined some since January 2021 to 936,112 recipients in January 2023.

Auditors noted that SNAP benefits increased 107%, from $292 per month per household prior to the pandemic in February 2020 to $563 in December 2022, due to three factors. They included a $95 per month increase approved by Congress in March 2020 that ended in February 2023; a 15% benefit increase approved by Congress that ended in September 2021; and a revision in the basis for SNAP benefits unrelated to the pandemic that increased benefits an average of $36 per month beginning in October 2021.

“The increase in average benefit amounts combined with increased recipients resulted in a 160.7% increase in total recipient benefit amounts paid monthly from $98.2 million prior to the COVID-19 pandemic in February 2020 to $256.0 million in January 2023,” according to the auditor.

The audit highlights other federal flexibilities beyond the extended certification periods that contributed to the increase, including waived verification interviews, and the suspension of quality control reviews of SNAP cases.

Secretary Terri Ricks, of the Department of Children and Family Services, responded to the audit report in a letter to Waguespack on March 22 that explained how the federal flexibilities allowed officials to process a flood of applications during the pandemic.

“These federal changes allowed DCFS to process 5 times the regular number of SNAP applications in the initial months of the pandemic, to eliminate many of the barriers to assistance for families in need, to provide food assistance to a record number of Louisiana households, and to increase funds to Louisiana’s retailers in a time of economic uncertainty,” Ricks wrote. “We are grateful to our federal, state and local partners for helping us serve a record number of Louisianans.”

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