Policy guidance from the U.S Department of Agriculture has resulted in the poorest Nevadans being excluded from emergency food assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March, Congress passed the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, providing emergency additional food benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program.
The federal agency, however, is not allowing the additional aid to go to households already receiving maximum monthly benefits for their household size. The poorest and most vulnerable households, which already received the maximum amount allowed due to their low income, are not eligible for emergency aid at all.
“Households who already received the maximum SNAP benefit for their household size did not receive any additional SNAP dollars; that is how the federal policy was written for the Supplemental Emergency Allotments,” wrote Shannon Litz, public information officer for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (NVDHHS), in an email.
As a result, emergency benefits authorized by Congress have been made available only to SNAP households with relatively higher incomes, who normally receive less in SNAP.
The Nevada Division of Welfare and Supportive Services reported that in March, at the start of the pandemic related shutdowns, it saw a 400 percent increase in applications from the previous year while the USDA’s guidance resulted in the exclusion of more than 55 percent of SNAP recipients from emergency benefits in Nevada, including an estimated 140,000 individuals and more than 23,000 households with children.
From March through June, roughly 140,000 — about 45 percent — of SNAP households in Nevada did receive additional benefits as a result of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, totaling more than $100 million in extra SNAP benefits, according to NVDHHS. Additionally, Nevada has approved emergency allotments for the month of July. Disbursement to eligible households will be sent out the first weekend in August, ranging from $1 up to the maximum allotment for their household size.
Nonprofit nutritional providers, however, say food insecurity in Nevada is not going away.
Nevada confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 5. A state of emergency was declared on March 12, and a mandatory stay-at-home order followed on March 17. Following the ensuing economic shutdowns Nevada had an almost 19 percent increase in SNAP participants between April 2019 and April 2020, according to recent data from USDA examining SNAP usage through April.
A weekly survey created by The U.S. Census Bureau tracks the effects of COVID-19 on households, including whether people have enough to eat and found that about 300,000 Nevadas reported food insufficiency “sometimes” or “often” in the past week, according to data analyzed by Applied Analysis.
The lack of emergency SNAP benefits for the lowest income families in Nevada may be exacerbated in the coming weeks as Congress has struggled to agree on another COVID-19 relief bill extending federal benefits to households.
According to data from the U.S Census Bureau’s weekly survey, in the last seven days 1.5 million households in Nevada used stimulus payments from the CARES Act to buy groceries, more than any other expenses tracked by the agency.
About 21 percent of households in Nevada depended on the $600 in weekly emergency supplemental unemployment payments to make ends meet, according to the weekly survey.
“What was clearly once a problem for low income people is now crossing economic classes,” said Larry Scott, the Chief Operating Officer for Three Square. “The audience we are serving is growing from people living in poverty to people who lost employment and have fallen on hard times.”
Nevada is not the only state affected by the policy. In more than half of all states, one-third or more of all SNAP households are not receiving emergency benefits, according to an analysis by the Center for American Progress.
In March, Pennsylvania submitted a waiver to the federal government asking for permission to issue all SNAP recipients additional benefits, but the request was denied, resulting in a lawsuit to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP.
The lawsuit cites the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendation that all households maintain a two-week supply of food as a reason to provide an emergency allotment equivalent to two weeks of benefits at the maximum rate.
“In Pennsylvania, the USDA’s guidance results in exclusion of nearly 40% of SNAP recipients from emergency SNAP allotments, including many elderly people, families with young children, and people with disabilities, in direct violation of the law,” according to the lawsuit.