Urban Wire Many eligible SNAP beneficiaries are tripped up by bureaucratic hurdles
Matthew Johnson
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Many low-income adults and families entitled to food assistance are mistakenly disconnected from the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) because of trouble navigating bureaucratic requirements, said Urban Institute Senior Fellow Greg Mills to the House Agriculture Nutrition Subcommittee on Thursday.

The financial consequences cost both the government and the affected beneficiaries, he added.

“Agencies incur additional administrative costs to the extent the case requires a new application, involving two to three times as much caseworker effort as a recertification,” Mills said. “Households lose benefits to the extent that they remained eligible during their churn spell. The forgone benefits, although a small percentage of a state’s annual benefit payments, can cause significant hardship for the affected clients.”

Disconnection from SNAP, or “churning,” occurs when beneficiaries exit the program, but re-enter less than four months later. While some churn naturally occurs when beneficiaries get temporary increases in their earnings, in many other cases it happens to people who were eligible for benefits.

Mills led a three-year study at the Urban Institute to learn more about the rate and reason why churning occurred in SNAP programs administered in Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Maryland, Texas, and Virginia. The study found that 17 to 28 percent of beneficiaries — depending on the state — experienced at least one spell of churning during fiscal year 2011.

Mistaken churning happens most frequently when program beneficiaries experience procedural difficulties that prevent them from recertifying for the program, or from submitting required interim reports designed to update administrators on changes in income, or other eligibility requirements.

For example, when low income beneficiaries move to a new residence in their state — which they do more frequently than those further up the income spectrum — they might miss a deadline because they are overwhelmed by related logistics, or their mail does not arrive at their new address, he said.

Another example occurs when beneficiaries face adverse circumstances that affect their physical or mental health, literacy, or language proficiency.

The Republican-led subcommittee held the oversight hearing with the aim of gathering more information about the characteristics of SNAP recipients and the dynamics of program participation as — in the words of Full Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas — the “beginning of a top-to-bottom review of the program.”

“The program lacks a clear vision and the data seems to show us that it doesn’t necessarily support families coming out of poverty and it’s not necessarily helping to lift people into better circumstances,” said Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Walorski, R-Ind. “The SNAP program is not functioning by itself. That’s why it’s so important that this subcommittee focus its efforts on how SNAP can best serve families and children across the United States.”

Democrats on the subcommittee contested the idea that SNAP is a program in distress.

“I’m a little surprised that we’re starting the first ‘top-to-bottom’ review of programs within the committees’ jurisdiction with SNAP, a program whose caseloads and spending are going down according to [the Congressional Budget Office],” said Ranking Subcommittee Member Jim McGovern, D-Mass.

“I want to ask my colleagues to remember just how poor you must be to qualify for SNAP. Eligibility requirements are tough even if you are poor and the program has one of the lowest error rates of any federal program. The bottom line is SNAP works,” he added.

Mills said finding the right policy will involve making trade-offs.

“Our evidence suggests that SNAP churn has adverse consequences to both agencies and households that are sufficient to warrant policy actions,” he said. “A lower rate of churn is clearly a desirable goal; it represents an improvement in benefit access and service quality for recipients. Any program changes, however, will need to balance improved benefit access with maintaining program integrity and containing budgetary cost.”

Still, Mills recommended that lawmakers consider four straightforward program tweaks that could reduce churning without having to confront difficult tradeoffs, including:

  • Aligning recertification dates and processes for SNAP with those required by Medicaid and the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families income subsidy program.
  • Eliminating required face-to-face interviews for recertification and permitting them to take place over the phone, or at a community-based partner organization, such as a food bank.
  • Using call centers to enable beneficiaries to better inform SNAP staffers about address changes, clarify other eligibility information, or inquire about their status in the program.
  • Allow beneficiaries a 30-day grace period if they fail to provide documents or information required for certification.

Photo: Matt Johnson/Urban Institute


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Research Areas Social safety net
Tags Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Hunger and food assistance