Quarantines, social distancing, remote work, and shuttered government buildings have suddenly become the reality in a growing number of communities across the nation. Although these measures are necessary for limiting the spread of the coronavirus, they also create new challenges and require creative solutions for serving vulnerable people through public assistance programs.
Policy changes to help people already receiving benefits
A few common sense and short-term policy and procedure changes would allow people already receiving food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) and cash assistance through Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) block grant programs to continue receiving these vital services during the crisis.
1. Automatically extend certifications
People receiving assistance typically need to reestablish their eligibility for the programs every 3 to 12 months, depending on the program and state. These processes often involve in-person visits to a social service office, sometimes with a long wait in a crowded waiting room, and a face-to-face interview with a caseworker. This process involves risk to both applicants and caseworkers in the context of the coronavirus.
States can easily avoid this risk by extending program certifications for all current program participants until the crisis has passed. Maryland has announced (PDF) that all licenses, permits, registrations, and other state authorizations will be extended until 30 days after the end of the state of emergency. States can make sure this type of announcement includes certifications for public assistance programs.
2. Suspend work activity requirements
Both SNAP and TANF require at least some program participants to document that they are working or engaged in countable work-related activities as a condition of receiving assistance. Suspending work activity requirements seems an obvious solution in the context of social distancing, expected reductions in work hours, and job loss.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act (PDF) the House of Representatives passed on March 14 includes language that “suspends the work and work training requirements for SNAP during this crisis.” In addition, a preliminary injunction granted on March 13 suspended the April 1 implementation of new SNAP rules that would have expanded the number of people subject to work requirements.
Suspending the work requirements in TANF, as well as SNAP, is important and would require temporarily relieving not only program participants of that obligation but also states of the federal requirement that they engage a certain percentage of their work-eligible TANF families in work and work-related activities.
Policy changes to help people applying for new benefits
Other proposed policy changes related to unemployment insurance and paid leave could limit the economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic, but many workers may not qualify for these provisions, even under expanded rules, and will look to TANF or SNAP for assistance. For these new applicants, additional creative solutions are needed to help people receive the assistance they need as quickly as possible without requiring face-to-face interactions.
3. Maximize online and phone application capabilities
The pandemic increases the need for application processes that do not involve face-to-face interaction. As of 2016, 36 states offered online TANF applications, and 42 states offered online SNAP applications. But in some places, the typical process, especially for TANF, requires applicants to meet in person with a caseworker to verify information and discuss program rules before they can begin receiving assistance. Providing assistance immediately based on the information in the online application and postponing in-person meetings would allow people to access these crucial benefits until the crisis has passed.
4. Suspend job search requirements for TANF applicants
TANF applicants in 17 states are required to look for a job before they can begin receiving cash assistance. Depending on the state, this might involve making a minimum number of job contacts or participating in an orientation and job search program. This requirement doesn’t make sense under current conditions.
5. Make use of TANF nonrecurrent short-term benefits
In 32 states, people eligible for cash assistance may be able to receive a lump-sum cash payment, often called a “diversion payment,” rather than beginning to receive ongoing cash assistance. The payment is designed to address a short-term need. Diversion payment amounts are usually equivalent to a few months’ cash assistance, and families who receive them typically are ineligible to receive ongoing cash assistance for at least the period used in determining the amount of the diversion payment.
Some states count diversion payments against a family’s cash assistance time limit. States that already choose to offer diversion payments will likely make use of them, but the other states may consider offering them as well.
Policy change if the need for public assistance grows substantially
6. Congress may consider authorizing a TANF Emergency Fund
Congress took this step under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. During the depths of the Great Recession, ARRA authorized $5 billion to states, tribes, and territories to partially reimburse them for certain increased costs. States spent (PDF) about one-third of the emergency funds ($1.6 billion) on basic assistance, two-fifths ($2.1 billion) on nonrecurrent short-term benefits, and the remaining one-third ($1.3 billion) on subsidized employment.
Though subsidized employment is of limited use in the current crisis, additional funding for basic assistance and nonrecurrent short-term benefits could be beneficial. A TANF emergency fund would be separate from the existing TANF contingency fund (PDF) available to qualifying states during economic downturns; but this year’s $608 million contingency fund allocation is already nearly depleted.
This blog post was updated on March 18, 2020, to clarify how some states categorize diversion payments. Some states count diversion payments against a family’s cash assistance time limit, though it’s not clear whether those payments count against the federal time limit (as we originally stated) or a state limit. We also added a sentence clarifying that the existing $608 million TANF contingency fund is nearly depleted.