February Food Stamps Are Here Early—That’s Good News and Bad News

AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

A sign advertises a program that allows food stamp recipients to use their EBT cards to shop at a farmer's market in Topsham, Maine. 

The effects of the government shutdown are spreading to affect people beyond the federal workers and contractors who have not been paid for nearly a month. Recently, there was serious concern that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps) benefits wouldn’t be issued for the month of February if the shutdown continued. Some governmental tinkering with appropriation funds has seemed to solve this problem, and most people who receive SNAP across the country received their February benefits early—around January 20.

A sigh of relief.

“Our motto here at USDA has been to ‘Do Right and Feed Everyone.’ With this solution, we’ve got the ‘Feed Everyone’ part handled,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement. Yet, though people will be able to access their February benefits, there is another shutdown-related domino that could easily topple, and that’s that these benefits are meant to last until at least the end of February. According to a report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 30 million SNAP recipients—making up about 90 percent of SNAP households—could experience a 40-day gap between benefit payments. More than eight million recipients could see a 50-day gap. It’s well-known that food stamp spending is higher in the beginning of the month—when the benefits are first issued—and it then tapers off as funds are quickly spent. Some families run out of food stamps—and sometimes, food—as the month closes. (Most states spread out SNAP issuance over the calendar month, but families receive their allotment about every 30 days.) 

As the month goes by, the likelihood increases that a person who receives food stamps will experience a day during which they don’t eat at all. In short, SNAP doesn’t cover enough to alleviate hunger in the United States. According to a recent study by the Urban Institute, in 99 percent of counties across the U.S., the maximum SNAP benefit doesn’t cover the costs of three meals a day, which researchers estimated at $2.36 per meal. (The maximum benefit provides for approximately $1.86 per meal.) 

If we closely examine the very name of SNAP—it’s a supplemental program—we can see that this meager level of payments is intended. The benefits aren’t supposed to keep hunger at bay all month. (The program name change from “food stamps” to SNAP in 2008, with the inclusion of the word “supplemental,” like the temporary in Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, or cash welfare, may well have been meant to show that American welfare benefits are limited, a subtle suggestion that the U.S. isn’t friendly to welfare assistance, as if we didn’t know.) 

But many low-income people really need SNAP to last all month. For some families, food stamps are their only income: in 2012, one in five SNAP recipients reported no other income or benefit besides SNAP.

Social services agencies and nonprofits are trying to get the word out to let families know they should “ration” their SNAP benefits, since they won’t be getting a deposit of benefits in February. The method of notification depends on the state. “This is not a bonus payment. … Households are strongly encouraged to carefully plan and budget their benefits accordingly,” the South Carolina Department of Social Services stated in a press release, with language similar to that of other states. Many states also used social media to spread the news.

Press releases and Twitter, however, are probably not enough to warn families that their sudden uptick in benefits is replacing their February allotment. The Missouri Department of Social Services told the Prospect it had embarked on a “statewide effort” to inform affected SNAP recipients, which included, for example, working with community partners to disseminate information and inserting flyers when mailing benefit materials to clients. For its part, Montana’s health and human services agency is calling recipients with recorded messages. 

Unfortunately, it’s not merely the month of February we should worry about—if the shutdown continues, families might not see benefits in March at all. It does not seem there is any accounting trick that can be used to find funding once again. Even with the successful implementation of February benefits, a small number of stores across the country can’t accept benefits at all because of the shutdown; stores that accept SNAP have to be recertified by the government every 5 years, so those stores that had deadlines this month no longer have active licenses, and they cannot accept food stamps. It’s a tiny percentage of the SNAP population that’s impacted, but given how people in poverty may have limited access to transportation and may rely on only one or two stores to buy their food, this could have dire consequences at the household level.

So where will people turn if their government benefits aren’t enough? The only other options are food pantries and food banks—which are not equipped to feed the bulk of hungry people in America. These charities provide just 5 percent of the overall food assistance in the U.S., while government programs provide the other 95 percent. In other words, charity alone cannot feed the hungry in the U.S. Yet according to interviews with 61,000 food pantry clients by Feeding America for a 2010 report, about 40 percent of those clients received SNAP as well. Most were regular visitors to a pantry.

And, of course, since the government is closed, and thousands of federal workers and contractors are furloughed or working without pay, there are thousands of more people who have joined the ranks of the temporarily poor. They, too, have been forced to go to food banks in order to put food on the table for themselves and their families, and some are even applying for SNAP. The Capital Area Food Bank in Washington, D.C., told CBS News that it expects to serve between 300,000 to 600,000 more meals than usual in January, which would cost approximately $300,000 more than what’s typically budgeted. And federal workers are all over the country, not just in D.C.

Next month, we could be seeing a major influx of hungry people seeking food at pantries, as the shutdown affects more and more vulnerable people who live paycheck to paycheck—or rely on monthly food stamps to eat. 

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