More than five months after the declaration of a national emergency due to COVID-19, legitimate concern is growing that the burden placed on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to comply with the excessive paperwork needed to maintain their food assistance benefits could be heightening food insecurity in West Virginia.
Passed in March, The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) gave the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) the authority to grant states flexibility to keep SNAP households connected to food assistance through measures such as allowing them to extend certification periods and suspend other reporting requirements. Usually most SNAP households face paperwork requirements every six months. This process requires state agencies like the the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources (DHHR) to mail complicated, lengthy application documents to recipients that then have to be completed, mailed back, and successfully processed at DHHR locations within a certain timeframe in order for clients’ federal food assistance to continue without interruption. If anything gets delayed throughout this process, whether due to client confusion or state agency error or backlog, the household may experience a gap in their assistance.
Last spring, West Virginia applied and was granted waivers from USDA to keep SNAP households automatically connected to their benefits from April through June 2020 without need for review or additional applications. These waivers were critical in helping to reduce the significant administrative burden on DHHR, thus providing the agency more bandwidth to focus on adapting operations to socially distant practices while it saw significant increases in SNAP applications in the weeks and months following the declaration of the national emergency.
SNAP responded quickly to the economic fallout of the pandemic-driven recession across the country. In West Virginia, more than 13,000 new households enrolled in SNAP in the months of March and April, directing more than $3.7 million in federal food assistance to struggling households throughout the state.
Even with the introduction of the $600/week Pandemic Unemployment Compensation (PUC) benefit that went into effect at the end of March, food insecurity remained high in West Virginia, especially for homes that have children. The Pulse Survey conducted by the Census Bureau showed food insecurity rates in West Virginia households with children to be 9.8% prior to March 13, and spiking to over 20% the week of June 4. While the rate lowered to 15.8% the week of July 21, this level of food insecurity is still markedly higher than when the national response to COVID-19 began.
The expiration of the $600 weekly PUC unemployment benefit at the end of July makes streamlined access to SNAP even more critical for families. With the June 30 expiration of West Virginia’s waiver, many families relying on SNAP benefits were forced to return to navigating an already overburdened system to prove that they still qualify for SNAP benefits. Moreover, these often-complicated processes resumed when families could least afford to lose out on federal food assistance. It is also important to bear in mind that processing paperwork for households that are already participating in SNAP takes valuable resources away from the state’s ability to focus on processing new applications from families that recently lost employment or whose unemployment insurance was cut.
West Virginians’ exemption from having to complete periodic SNAP recertifications and reports expired June 30. This means that beginning on July 1, our state’s SNAP recipients due for recertification were subjected to the demanding processes involved to prove their eligibility, which includes cooperating with an already overwhelmed and overburdened DHHR to successfully process those recertifications.
It appears that West Virginia recently received approval to somewhat modify and simplify the recertification process for certain households. The state can now rely on use of the periodic reporting process, which does not require an interview for households that have provided all their paperwork, instead of the full recertification process.
Nevertheless, with local offices and libraries still closed, postal services frequently delayed, and the ongoing reality that many households lack full access to internet and telephone service, it is critical that the state continues to explore every option available to ensure that paperwork and administrative requirements aren’t a barrier to food assistance.
As unemployment remains high and families struggle to make ends meet and keep food on the table, West Virginia would be wise to reduce the paperwork on families and the already overwhelmed staff of DHHR by fighting for further exemptions from SNAP recertification requirements. Such action could streamline access to one of the most effective anti-poverty and recession response initiatives we have, and could make all the difference for hungry children and families.
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