NBC News Special Report: Americans are still struggling with food insecurity. Congress must act now.

Americans are struggling to get help. But it doesn’t need to be this way

As part of its series of reports on the hunger crisis and growing food insecurity in America, NBC News on February 2, 2021 highlighted some of the unnecessary challenges families in need face in accessing federal nutrition benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) which has replaced the old food stamps program. As NBC reported, although the need for SNAP has grown more than fifteen percent during the pandemic – with 1 in 8 Americans now qualifying for assistance – the processes under which it operates remain arcane and daunting to Americans in need. One family that was featured in the report qualified for assistance but has been repeatedly turned down due to bureaucratic barriers, like having to provide end-of-employment verification for jobs they had left years ago, including at companies that no longer exist. But when they seek help by phone, getting a hold of anyone is near impossible.

And therein lies one of the tragedies of the current crisis: people in need are unable to access the assistance for which they qualify because the SNAP program does not provide states the flexibilities that are available to other assistance programs, prominently including Unemployment Insurance. The CARES Act, passed by Congress last March in response to the pandemic, allows states, for the first time, to use contractors to help states handle the surge of claimants. Forty one states – with governors from both political parties, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies – are using this flexibility. Not to allow states the same flexibility for SNAP is simply wrong.

What to do now?

CAMI has long argued that providing more innovation in the SNAP eligibility determination process is not only good from a policy perspective, but, as shown in the NBC News report, important to overcoming barriers in the system that are hurting families struggling to make ends meet and literally put food on the table. The recently-tapped Deputy Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services (FNCS) Stacey Dean, acknowledged that the process of applying for SNAP is tough and rigorous, and that the remote environment makes it more challenging. She went on to say the Biden Administration is working to fix the process, and potentially increase benefits – but did not offer specifics.

But there is something that can be done, immediately: As part of the next COVID relief bill, give state and local governments the ability to contract with qualified private sector partners and nonprofit organizations to help in administering SNAP benefits.

Instead of calls going unanswered, qualified private sector partners could quickly stand-up call centers that can help applicants with their questions and identify solutions. Instead of having no choice but to watch families struggle and lines get longer and longer, food banks could help with eligibility determinations. These are but two of the modern solutions to an outdated system; and they mirror flexibility that has already been given to states to handle the massive influx of unemployment insurance applications but are not an option under federal rules for the SNAP program.

CAMI Senior Advisors, former Congressman John Faso and Rus Sykes, penned an op-ed that appeared in Morning Consult this morning further outlining the reforms that are necessary to make it easier for struggling families to get the assistance they need.

“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.”

Read the op-ed

We are letting old government rules make what is already a terrible situation for families even worse, putting burdens on families that already have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Congress must take action now to address food insecurity and get families the benefits they need. And that must include authorizing flexibility for states administering the SNAP program in any upcoming COVID-19 relief bill. There is no time to waste.