The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
June 21, 2016

Help families in poverty by speeding delivery of SNAP benefits

June 21, 2016

Throughout June, Urban Institute scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for reducing poverty and increasing opportunity.

For families living in poverty, an unexpected dip in income or spike in expenses can mean having the phone cut off, being unable to pay for prescriptions, or running out of food. Cash-strapped families often turn to emergency savings, credit cards, friends and relatives, payday loans, food banks, or government agencies for help.

Government agencies play multiple roles in addressing poverty and improving opportunity. While some programs target the long-term reduction of poverty, others play a vital role in stabilizing families facing the fluctuations of the low-wage labor market. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) is one of those stabilizing programs. 

About 60 percent of SNAP applicants with children reported experiencing some kind of emergency during the application process, according to surveys in three states. And more than half of those experiencing emergencies, or 36 to 40 percent of all applying families, reported that the emergencies could have been avoided or reduced if they had gotten their benefits more quickly. 

Federal legislation requires that agencies deliver SNAP benefits within seven days to destitute families with little or no income and within 30 days to other eligible families. Yet, people “come into [social service agency] lobbies because they [are] hungry now...not 30 days from now,” an Idaho official told Urban Institute researchers. 

Idaho aims to provide same-day service—meaning that clients get SNAP benefits the same day they apply—to at least 70 percent of SNAP applicants.  

Idaho was one of six states participating in the foundation-funded Work Support Strategies (WSS) Initiative, a partnership of state agencies and national technical assistance experts working to streamline and integrate delivery of SNAP, Medicaid, child care subsidies, and other work support benefits. The initiative’s goal was helping families access and keep benefits to support their work and well-being.

Over five years of planning and implementation, the percentage of SNAP applications with same-day service doubled or tripled in three of the six WSS states—Colorado, Illinois, and Rhode Island went up from about 10-15 percent of applications to 20-33 percent—and increased marginally in Idaho from 71 to 72 percent. North and South Carolina did not track same-day service, but South Carolina saw an increase in the percentage of SNAP applicants served within 10 days.

State and local workers in several states told researchers that many clients expressed surprise and gratitude when they found out they could get their benefits that day.

Percent of SNAP Applications Processed Same Day in Four States

In addition to speeding up SNAP benefits for needy families, the WSS states also made strides in enrolling more dually eligible people in SNAP and Medicaid, streamlining verification policies for SNAP and other programs, implementing updated technologies, redesigning waiting areas and business practices, and reducing client waiting time in lobbies. 

Improving benefit delivery may have only modest impacts on reducing poverty. Yet, the speedy and efficient delivery of benefits can help stabilize families struggling to pay their monthly bills despite fluctuating earnings, supporting their efforts to move up and out of poverty. 

To learn more about lessons from the Work Support Strategies initiative and next steps for improving access to benefits, register for the June 28 event “Making Government Programs Work,” hosted by the Urban Institute.

Maggie Barcellano prepares dinner at her father's house in Austin, Texas on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2014. Barcellano, who lives with her father, enrolled in the food stamps program to help save up for paramedic training while she works as a home health aide and raises her three-year-old daughter. Working-age people now make up the majority in U.S. households that rely on food stamps, a switch from a few years ago when children and the elderly were the main recipients. Photo by Tamir Kalifa/AP

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