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How states can promote food security as the public health emergency ends

Jaqueline Benitez, who depends on California’s SNAP benefits to help pay for food, pays for groceries at a supermarket in Bellflower, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. (AP Photo/Allison Dinner)

As the COVID-19 public health emergency comes to an end, many pandemic-era policies will sunset. These policies enacted changes in the health care system, such as telehealth flexibilities or uninterrupted Medicaid coverage. Equally important, they also expanded eligibility and eased access to key public benefit programs, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). 

Many people are now at risk of losing these benefits, which will have outsized effects on health and economic stability. By following the evidence, states can minimize the harm caused by changing policies at this critical moment. 

SNAP is the nation’s largest food assistance program, serving over 40 million people in 2020. The program has proven short- and long-term benefits, such as improving birth outcomes, promoting health, increasing economic stability, and increasing life expectancy. 

In response to the pandemic, Congress, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and many states expanded access to SNAP — including removing work requirements and expanding college student eligibility — and increased benefit levels through emergency allotments. The USDA also expanded application process waivers to make it easier to apply to SNAP, which has been used to enable virtual applicant interviews, accommodate telephonic signatures, extend certification periods and simplify reporting requirements. 

Now, these changes are ending or have already ended. The USDA estimates that participants will lose an average of $82 per person in SNAP benefits each month, and others will lose eligibility altogether. Coupled with food prices and inflation, this will cause food insecurity to increase rapidly. Without continued federal support, states have limited tools to increase SNAP benefit amounts or change eligibility. 

However, states can instead consider implementing policies that ease application and recertification processes. Although the expanded application process waivers are ending, other policies do not require public health emergency authority to implement. Even small modifications to the application and recertification processes can dramatically increase enrollment and reduce churn (which describes when eligible individuals are dropped from the program and rejoin at a later point). This has been shown by historical evidence: In the 1990s, some states began to extend the time frame during which participants are required to prove continued eligibility, known as recertification periods. During this time, states with shorter recertification periods had lower SNAP participation as compared to those with extended periods, likely due in part to the paperwork burden required to maintain benefits. 

Making it easier to enroll in and stay on SNAP should be a top priority for states that want to best serve their communities. However, identifying strategies that will actually have an impact is often easier said than done. To ensure states are spending resources on programs that work, they should rely on evidence-based programs. Two examples of programs that have been rigorously evaluated and found to be effective are informational letters and flexibility in the enrollment and recertification interview process. 

One potential barrier to enrollment is that SNAP-eligible households do not know if they are eligible, particularly as pandemic-era eligibility and application processes change. A 2015 randomized evaluation in Pennsylvania sent informational letters to likely-eligible, non-participating households that included notice of potential eligibility and application information. The letters nearly doubled SNAP enrollment. Importantly, adding a phone number connecting folks to application assistance tripled SNAP enrollment. Informational “nudges,” such as these, and enrollment assistance are widely recognized as reliable tools to increase take-up of public benefit programs, from student aid to Medicaid. Implementing these tools is cost-effective and can be highly impactful. 

Another potential barrier to SNAP access is the application process itself. For example, to enroll in SNAP, applicants must complete an interview with a SNAP caseworker to determine their eligibility. Once admitted to the program, recipients must complete an additional caseworker interview at least once per year to demonstrate maintained eligibility. 

Research shows that the timing and accessibility of these interviews are incredibly important for SNAP applicants. In a study of recertification processes in San Francisco that I co-authored, we demonstrate that participants who had an earlier date for their recertification interview, leaving more time to reschedule if missed, were substantially more likely to recertify. It became clear that a small tweak in the recertification process could increase SNAP participation and reduce churn.  

This evidence highlighted the caseworker interview as a key barrier to participation and suggested that other changes to the interview process could have an impact as well. For example, in most states, interviews with SNAP caseworkers are scheduled by the SNAP offices, not the client. However, states can apply for a waiver allowing them to provide unscheduled, client-initiated interviews. In partnership with Los Angeles County and Code for America, I and my coauthors conducted a randomized evaluation that provided access to on-demand interviews, where applicants could call and connect to a caseworker on their own schedule. We found that this flexibility significantly expedited benefit access and led to large increases in overall program take-up. Our findings highlight the importance of flexibility in application processes in ensuring people are able to participate in SNAP and the myriad of benefits it confers. 

As states begin to conduct outreach to SNAP-eligible households or make changes to application processes, they should also continue to evaluate and understand what interventions work. For example, more experimental evidence is needed to understand how changes to eligibility, such as the current changes around work requirements, impact people’s outcomes. 

At this important transition time, states should rely on the evidence to guide their next steps and continue to rigorously evaluate programs in order to support the communities they serve. 

Tatiana Homonoff is an associate professor of economics and public policy at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service. She is an affiliated researcher of J-PAL North America and the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER).

Tags Food prices Food security food stamps SNAP National Public Health Emergency Politics of the United States SNAP benefits

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