A growing body of research is confirming what many have long suspected – the processes through which people access support during life’s inevitable ups and downs play a pivotal role in shaping the success of human services. Like other supportive services, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was designed with strict eligibility requirements that have shaped how states are required to operate the program. These restrictions have contributed to a system design that struggles to center itself in the unique needs of families and has contributed to disparate outcomes for people based on the color of their skin, language, and ability. However, program flexibilities authorized by Congressional leadership and the USDA in response to the COVID-19 pandemic have temporarily changed how clients can interact with SNAP and have offered a glimpse into what the future of the program could look like. It is now incumbent on state and federal policymakers to take a deeper look at the systems and business processes that have gone on for far too long, and use the lessons learned from the past 18 months to chart a new path forward for how SNAP services are delivered.
The first interaction that people have with SNAP is at the time of application, and in the early months of the pandemic, states across the country saw record-breaking numbers of people applying. SNAP applications are not easy, and rules governing how people apply for assistance and establish their eligibility impacts their ability to obtain benefits. The sudden closure of many businesses and resulting spike in unemployment made collecting information such as income verification from employers exponentially more difficult. At the same time, state agencies scrambled to shift to a virtual environment as public health precautions demanded that SNAP applications be received and processed remotely. Several changes to administrative rules proved particularly helpful to keep pace with the rise in new applicants:
- Interview adjustments granted SNAP agencies flexibility to waive the requirement that a SNAP applicant complete an interview, so long as the household was otherwise verified to meet eligibility requirements.
- Telephonic signature waivers gave agencies the ability to collect applications over the phone and document a client’s signature in writing in lieu of collecting an audio recording from the client.
Additionally, as agencies struggled to keep up with new caseload demands, they had to ensure the millions of people already receiving SNAP did not lose their benefits because of rules associated with recertification. If households cannot recertify on time, they may be forced to start a new application to reestablish their eligibility for SNAP, or risk losing benefits. For these households facing upcoming recertification deadlines, state waivers that proved critical included:
- Extending certification periods for existing SNAP recipients ensured households could maintain benefits while states focused on keeping up with new caseload demands and challenges..
- Waiving interview requirements and simplifying the recertification process allowed some states to continue recertifying SNAP recipients without requiring burdensome interviews for households that did not need the structured support to renew their eligibility
These are just a few examples of the ways in which states streamlined administrative requirements for families to reduce barriers to entry and participation. A recent study by the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA) and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health surveyed state SNAP administrators and showed that many states preferred these more flexible approaches to delivering SNAP. Looking to the future, human services professionals can draw on many lessons over recent months to modernize SNAP for families and communities. The following are recommendations for how Congress and USDA can build upon these lessons to promote a stronger, more human-centered experience for people applying for and receiving SNAP:
- Support state and local SNAP agencies in further testing and evaluating the best use of initial application & recertification interviews. APHSA and Johns Hopkins’ study found that only about one-third of states believed the current method of requiring households to conduct an interview at both eligibility and recertification was a best practice, while another third preferred that an interview only be required at eligibility, and a final third believed that an interview not be required unless the specific case merits further investigation. States recognize that interviews can play a supportive role in helping people navigate the complicated requirements of SNAP but that arbitrary requirements to uniformly impose interviews on all households can lead to extra burden and barriers for clients. Many states did not believe that waiving an interview harmed program integrity, and that further support from FNS to test these hypotheses would be immensely impactful in the future for eligibility and benefit maintenance.
- Research and adopt best practices that streamline the recertification process. SNAP recipients that fail to complete an interview and provide all updated verification documents in a timely manner during the SNAP recertification process risk losing benefits and being forced to reapply. For many households, their income and expenses remain unchanged, yet they must still go through this rigorous process. Several states have participated in promising demonstration projects such as the Elderly Simplified Application Project (ESAP) and Standard Medical Deductions (SMDs) that help to simplify these processes for populations that are disproportionately burdened by recertification. Other states have been investing in new technology, such as text messaging reminders and online portals to complete recertifications and help ease these processes for families. Making simplified recertification procedures permanent state options and creating more opportunities for “soft touch” approaches to check-in and help clients with updating their SNAP records can help states better test and adopt promising practices.
- Invest in technological infrastructure to expand virtual engagement of clients in application and management of benefits. The country is shifting virtual, and the expedited shift in response to the pandemic has shown that SNAP can function in a virtual environment while maintaining program integrity. APHSA and Johns Hopkins’s report found that state SNAP agencies that already offered services such as application submission, verification upload, and periodic report forms online had a much easier shift in moving to remote case processing than states that did not have the previously built infrastructure. While many states offer at least some components of the SNAP application or maintenance online or via phone, there are significant opportunities for growth in making these functions mobile-friendly. Direct messages to a household’s online account or mobile application would be extremely useful when trying to communicate a program change or other important message. In a time when people are more likely to have a cell phone than a computer or a car, it is paramount that investments be made to shore up the technological infrastructure for state and local agencies not only for the immediate future, but to prepare for future emergencies as well.
In a time of crisis that brought on tremendous adversity to people and communities, there is an opportunity to chart new paths and build more resilient systems that do better for families and communities. To fulfill SNAP’s potential to support health and well-being, the administering and regulating bodies of SNAP must be intentional about clearing the administrative obstacles that too often lead to the exclusion of people that need support the most. We must take the last several months as a call to action and use the lessons learned to promote a more modern, human-centered SNAP program that truly and holistically supports people – and this starts with streamlining and solidifying their continued access to a program that supports them.
Funding Acknowledgment: This project was funded by Healthy Eating Research, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, through a special rapid-response research opportunity focused on COVID-19 and the federal nutrition programs, to inform decision-making regarding innovative policies and/or programs during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Read Additional Posts from the American Rescue Plan Series:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9