The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed large gaps in America’s social safety net. President Joe Biden has focused on speeding up vaccine delivery to the states and has ordered the Treasury Department to expedite cash payments.
A new COVID relief plan is being considered by Congress, but such a process will take time given narrow Democratic majorities on the Hill. Biden has also been correctly focused on making sure needy families receive the food assistance they need and has asked the Agriculture Department to speed delivery of nutrition assistance.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a unique opportunity to use this moment to modernize the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and move past its traditional reluctance to utilize private contractors to assist states in running this program. The recent state experience with the unemployment insurance systems presents a relevant example of how innovation could help government deliver better service for SNAP-eligible citizens.
States were unprepared for the influx of millions into their unemployment insurance systems. Elected officials were deluged with calls from constituents unable to access benefits, largely due to outdated UI computer systems and antiquated business processes, though technology alone would not have been enough to address the volume.
Emergency federal legislation has twice authorized states to retain contractors to assist in managing enrollment and over four-fifths of states have utilized this option. Without this assistance, millions of Americans would have faced even longer delays in accessing UI benefits.
Using contractors in SNAP is consistent with the new Biden-Harris proposal to use benefit management teams to make access to benefits easier and with Biden’s executive order on Jan. 22, 2021, to instruct USDA “to make it easier to enroll and claim SNAP.”
Applications for SNAP have surged in most states according to a study of state-reported data conducted by the Center on Accountability, Modernization, and Innovation. The USDA has legacy information technology systems and business processes and last provided data on SNAP enrollment in September 2020 (initial data only) — almost four months ago.
In contrast to the flexibility afforded state UI systems, federal rules preclude state and local governments from engaging contractors to provide assistance to SNAP in delivering this program. As food banks across the nation are witness to massive lines of people seeking help, the time is now for Congress and the Biden administration to modernize SNAP and eliminate barriers for vulnerable Americans to receive assistance. Why do we require those currently in severe need to provide the same eligibility information over and over again? It is a waste of time and resources for government and a burden on people.
Every day, Americans use modern technology for conducting financial, consumer and other transactions. Yet, USDA has not kept up and the agency is an outlier in its resistance to change. Multiple other human services programs provide more efficient and convenient access to benefits. Contractors and volunteers file tax returns for those eligible for the earned income tax credit. Child support and job training programs utilize private contractors for many program functions. The Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid contracted facilitated enrollers. Contractors also process TANF and child care eligibility applications. Yet, USDA refuses to authorize states to utilize skilled contractors, both nonprofit and for-profit. Food banks themselves are barred from assisting the families they serve in accessing SNAP benefits in all but four states.
When states have sought to improve SNAP, USDA is slow or unwilling to grant permission. When the State of New York sought a waiver for New York City to conduct an experiment to improve nutritional value of food allowed to be purchased with SNAP, it was rejected by the Obama Administration. USDA under the Trump administration continued to deny requests many states have made recently to loosen eligibility restrictions on students in higher education.
Given the likely duration of the pandemic, and the slow vaccine rollout, SNAP caseloads will increase further in 2021. Expanded weekly UI benefits of $300 included in the most recent legislation require that such income be disregarded for SNAP, making many people newly eligible at the same time states face hiring freezes and fiscal deficits. We know from the previous recession that SNAP caseload growth lags the economy and will continue to increase even after the nation recovers. States will be hard-pressed to process such applications unless they can retain outside help.
It is no crime to be poor in America, yet inflexible management prevents eligible needy clients from receiving SNAP at a time of surging need. President Biden wants to get nutrition help to families in need quickly and modernizing SNAP administration is the best way to achieve this goal.
John Faso is the former congressman for New York’s 19th Congressional District (2016-2018) and sponsored contracting legislation in SNAP in the 2018 Farm Bill. Russell Sykes is a former member of the National Commission on Hunger and past deputy commissioner for New York State’s Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance who directed SNAP and multiple other programs.
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