America's States Must Take The Lead On The Coronavirus Response

March 15, 2020 Topic: Security Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: CoronavirusPublic HealthFederalismPolitics

America's States Must Take The Lead On The Coronavirus Response

They have already taken important steps.

While necessary, the coronavirus mitigation strategies being used will disrupt the daily lives of millions of Americans and make low-income families economically vulnerable. School closings mean that low-income students will be without free school meals and employment disruptions could jeopardize government benefit receipt for families. The federal government must give states the ability to address the needs of low-income populations by allowing them to relax work requirements in TANF and SNAP, and increase benefit levels for certain SNAP households.

Congress is considering several measures to relieve the stress on American families as they navigate the effects of COVID-19. Beyond those efforts, state governments need flexibility to implement additional measures in SNAP and TANF to ease the burden of COVID-19 mitigation strategies on low-income families. Two issues are critical: (1) ensure that low-income children are properly fed without access to free or reduced-fee school meals and (2) ensure that employment disruptions do not create unnecessary hardship or jeopardize benefit receipt. 

States can use the flexibility afforded to them by TANF

The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program provides cash aid to approximately 1 million poor families with children each month. Some of these families receiving TANF are required to work, or participate in a work or training activity to maintain eligibility. The COVID-19 mitigation strategies will disrupt employment for many low-income families, especially for those who get sick or need to care for a sick family member.

To address this situation, states should review and temporarily relax their work requirements when TANF recipients are sick, needed at home to take care of a sick family member, or face work disruptions. This may run the risk of increasing TANF receipt in the long-run as more people become eligible in the short-term, but states can explore the use of emergency assistance to ensure that the current response will not cause long-term program disruption.  

Health care worker tests people at a drive-thru testing station run by the state health department, for people who suspect they have novel coronavirus, in Denver, Colorado, U.S. March 11, 2020. Via REUTERS/Jim Urquhart
Health care worker tests people at a drive-thru testing station run by the state health department, for people who suspect they have novel coronavirus, in Denver, Colorado, U.S. March 11, 2020. Via REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Currently, states are required to engage at least 50 percent of their TANF adult recipients (although this requirement is reduced in many states) in work, or else face penalties. States need reassurance from the federal government that they can exempt TANF recipients during the current crisis without facing repercussions. The federal government should also consider allowing states to use TANF contingency funds if necessary, which are intended to be used during times of economic need. States may need to tap into this pool of money to get through the immediate emergency.

States need flexibility in SNAP

Two categories of SNAP recipients will likely face hardship due to COVID-19 even if they do not get sick: Low-income households with children who are either sick or out of school due to closings and SNAP recipients who face work disruptions.

Many low-income children rely on free school meals. When schools close, low-income families may not have the resources to replace those lost meals. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees SNAP, should authorize states to send additional funds to SNAP households with school-age children when state officials determine that schools meals have been disrupted (a provision that is currently included in the Families First Coronavirus Response Act).

The USDA should also give states the authority to increase benefits for people temporarily out of work due to the current crisis. Typically, SNAP households who experience job loss would report income changes to a local SNAP agency, and their benefit would likely be adjusted. But people may not be able to predict how long they will be without a paycheck, or how much their pay will be affected. The USDA should allow states to temporarily issue the maximum monthly SNAP benefit to all participating households. This will limit income disruptions for working SNAP households and reduce any food hardships.   

The USDA should also allow states to suspend existing work requirements in SNAP. Currently, able-bodied adults without dependent children (ABAWDs) can only receive benefits for three months out of a three-year period unless they are working or participating in a work activity for 80 hours a month. States can waive this requirement during periods of high unemployment, but the current crisis likely won’t meet this unemployment threshold, at least in the short-term. The USDA should allow states to temporarily exempt all ABAWDs from these requirements until the current crisis abates. Making this a temporary measure reduces the risk of any long-term increases in SNAP participation that might stem from rolling back SNAP work requirements.

Low-income families are the most economically-vulnerable group in the current COVID-19 crisis, and measures that increase the effectiveness of safety-net programs in usual times may not help during a crisis. Fortunately, SNAP and TANF are designed to meet the needs of this crisis and help low-income families, as long as states are given authority to take appropriate action.

This article by Angela Rachidi first appeared at the American Enterprise Institute.

Image: Reuters.