By Former Rep. John Faso and Stan Soloway
America’s Poor School Children Need a Replacement for School Meals:
New pandemic benefits are only as good as states’ ability to deliver them. And when it comes to food security, enormous gaps are emerging.
As the coronavirus pandemic has put millions out of work, a variety of safety net systems are facing unprecedented strain. In many states, the flood of new applicants for benefits like Medicaid, unemployment, and SNAP have overwhelmed state agency staffs and outdated computer systems. For example, CNBC reported on May 12 that Florida had paid just 28% of the nearly two million claims filed in the two months prior. And many of those who have received benefits have complained of incorrect and inconsistent payments.
SNAP programs are also experiencing a surge of applications due to soaring unemployment. In addition, the “Families First Coronavirus Response Act” created the Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) program, which allows states to provide school-based free and reduced-price meals through the SNAP program by giving families additional EBT funds. Additionally, for the more than 50% of school nutrition program participants who live in families with incomes between 130% FPL and 185% FPL and do not normally qualify for SNAP, the law allowed for opening new accounts.
These expanded benefits are desperately needed, as roughly 40% of households with children under 12 are now food insecure (compared to about 15% a year ago). Yet, states have had trouble standing up these new systems.As of May 15, only 12 states (out of 34 approved at the time) had begun delivering benefits and only 15% of children previously eligible for free and reduced-priced lunch had received them, according to a New York Times analysis. As of June 8, 42 states and the District of Columbia had been approved to begin P-EBT programs and will almost certainly face similar challenges. This delay in critical benefit delivery is largely a function of arcane systems and technology, most of it caused by difficulty transferring lunch lists from thousands of schools to obsolete state databases. About half of school children have serious barriers to accessing Pandemic EBT to make up for the meals they received at school.
With new forecasts from Moody’s Analytics indicating that SNAP participation could peak at around 70 million, compared with 50 million during the last recession, now is the time for Congress to provide states with flexibility to manage this increased caseload. States should be able to engage qualified partners to process this increased demand for food assistance.
Congress Expands the Safety Net but Many May Fall Through
- By expanding unemployment benefits to new categories of workers and adding $600 weekly in additional benefits, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act (PL 116-136) exacerbates existing staffing challenges. Anticipating this debacle, the CARES Act also allows states the flexibility to hire contractors, re-hire retirees, or hire temporary workers to handle eligibility determinations—work formerly reserved for state employees under federal “merit system” employment requirements. This new flexibility allows state UI programs to leverage cutting edge technologies from the private sector to address inadequate legacy systems, avoid hiring new full-time employees for short-term work, and handle new eligibility groups such as gig workers and supplemental pandemic benefits.
- 26 states, evenly split making this truly bipartisan, have exercised this. Contractors in several states have been able to drastically speed application processing and reduce caller wait times, including from over 5 hours to half an hour in Washington, DC. In North Carolina, state employees were getting an average of 125,000 calls per day, but were only able to respond to less than 10% of the calls. The website was also overwhelmed. After bringing on a contractor to support this massive surge, there has been a tremendous increase in the volume of benefit requests that can be quickly adjudicated. In fact, in just a short time, the backlog has been cut by more than one-half. The ability of states to ensure proper accountability and performance metrics only serves to increase states’ ability to serve their citizens.
State Staffing Options to Realize the Promise of Pandemic EBT
To support the influx of SNAP eligibility determinations and leverage technology, Congress should amend the Families First Act to allow states to hire contractors for the duration of the pandemic to perform SNAP eligibility determinations, just as it authorized for support of UI programs.
Under current law and regulations, States are required to have full time State employees complete both the certification interviews as well as the eligibility determination. SNAP is one of the only federal assistance programs that has such statutory limitations.
This proposal would remove the requirement that State personnel involved in the certification of applicant SNAP households be employed “under a merit system,” which USDA interprets as a full-time state employee. If enacted, States would have the option to hire private contractors to complete the full SNAP eligibility process, including the certification interview, quality control, benefit allotment determination, and claims determination. In so doing, Congress could also include accountability guardrails to ensure that contracts for these activities include strict performance criteria and appropriate use of any incentives, so as to ensure that the focus is on rapidly getting needed benefits to qualified beneficiaries. States should also be authorized to hire temporary workers, as well as rehire retirees and former employees. The State agency would remain the entity responsible for SNAP administration and States that chose to use contracted staff would still need to meet requirements outlined in law and regulations for operating SNAP.
With these flexibilities in place, states can make swift progress to put food in the mouths of children who need it and make long-needed improvements to outmoded benefit systems.