Poverty & Safety Net
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Bridging the SNAP gap: How Ohio is mitigating the federal shutdown’s lingering impact on food assistance

February 25, 2019
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A month ago, amid the backdrop of a prolonged partial shutdown of the federal government, I wrote about the extreme consequences Ohio would face if federal funding for food assistance were to run out before the shutdown was resolved. Thankfully, with the shutdown ending on January 25 and the recent passage of a spending bill signed by the president, a full-blown lapse in funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was technically avoided. But as I wrote in January, the partial shutdown still resulted in disruption and confusion for the nearly 1.4 million Ohioans who rely on SNAP to help buy groceries each month.

 The partial shutdown still resulted in disruption and confusion for the nearly 1.4 million Ohioans who rely on SNAP to help buy groceries each month.

The SNAP Gap

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), facing a January 20 deadline on its spending authority, issued funding for February’s SNAP benefits early – under the expectation that the shutdown might stretch into February or longer. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) took swift action to comply with USDA’s deadline and transferred February’s benefits to SNAP recipients on January 16. This emergency action, while necessitated by uncertain circumstances, created the possibility of SNAP households going well over 40 days before they would receive their next scheduled benefit issuance in March, with some households experiencing a gap in benefits of more than 60 days. Such a lengthy “SNAP Gap” would have been a crisis not only because federal law requires no SNAP household to go longer than 40 days between benefits, but also because many SNAP recipients may not have understood that the benefit transfer they received on January 16 was meant to last until March.

 SNAP benefits are typically not sufficient to cover a recipient’s entire grocery budget to begin with, and many turn to Ohio’s food banks and pantries near the end of each month to make ends meet.

Based on Ohio’s SNAP issuance schedule, it is likely that most households would have experienced a gap of 50 to 60 days between benefits. SNAP benefits are typically not sufficient to cover a recipient’s entire grocery budget to begin with, and many turn to Ohio’s food banks and pantries near the end of each month to make ends meet. The SNAP Gap was expected to create unprecedented strain on these charitable organizations to meet increased demand.

 ODJFS will communicate the changes via social media, the Ohio Benefits Self Service Portal, and automated messages on interactive voice response lines.

Ohio’s Mitigation Plan

On February 1, the USDA issued guidance instructing states to develop mitigation plans to minimize the length of time between February and March SNAP benefit issuances. The guidance stated that the statutory 40-day requirement does not apply “given the unique circumstances of this situation,” but that states are “strongly encouraged” to consider the 40-day benchmark in developing their plans.  

ODJFS posted its mitigation plan on February 11, announcing that SNAP recipients would receive 50 percent of their March benefits on February 22, with the other half paid in March on each recipient’s regular monthly issuance date. This ensured that no household would go more than 40 days between their January and February benefits or their February and March benefits. The plan also outlines a communication strategy to make sure recipients are aware of the change in issuance and can budget for the coming month more effectively than when the February benefits were issued early without a such a communications plan. ODJFS will communicate the changes via social media, the Ohio Benefits Self Service Portal, and automated messages on interactive voice response lines.

 Administrative challenges presented by the SNAP Gap were felt in every state, but perhaps more acutely in Ohio where January’s federal shutdown overlapped with the transition of a new governor and ODJFS director inheriting this potential crisis.

Administrative challenges presented by the SNAP Gap were felt in every state, but perhaps more acutely in Ohio where January’s federal shutdown overlapped with the transition of a new governor and ODJFS director inheriting this potential crisis. While ODJFS should be commended for developing a timely and appropriate mitigation plan that adheres to the 40-day standard, the absence of additional funds made available at the state or federal levels means SNAP households may still face diminished benefits through March if they did not effectively budget their original February benefits issued on January 16. Put simply, most SNAP recipients will go from January 17 until their April issuance date – possibly more than 90 days – without receiving more than 50 percent of their regular monthly SNAP benefit.

 Given the increasing frequency with which federal policy disputes end in the threat or reality of a government shutdown, Ohio’s legislative leaders and administration officials should consider not just mitigation plans, but more proactive contingency planning to help shield vital human services programs from disruption in the future.

The Takeaway

State and federal policymaking are inextricably linked. While we typically think of federal policy decisions as taking months or years of careful planning before implementation at the state level, that predictability falls apart when the policy decision is to shut down the federal government. The recent partial shutdown provided a stark reminder of the chaos that federal brinksmanship can inflict on low-income families and state agencies that administer billions of dollars in federally funded human service programs. Given the increasing frequency with which federal policy disputes end in the threat or reality of a government shutdown, Ohio’s legislative leaders and administration officials should consider not just mitigation plans, but more proactive contingency planning to help shield vital human services programs from disruption in the future.

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