Outside Influences

Harvey Highlights Importance of Food Stamps

The Trump administration moved quickly to make sure those affected by the disaster could get benefits.

In this Aug. 31, 2017, photo, residents queue for food at a municipal building in Seadrift, Texas, while waiting on basic services to be restored. Hurricane Harvey hit the area six days earlier, knocking out power to the community. Local townspeople directed a response that led to churches in the town preparing meals for about a quarter of the town.
AP Photo/Kelly P. Kissel
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Jerry Hagstrom
Sept. 5, 2017, 8 p.m.

If ever there was a signal that Congress should reauthorize food stamps in the farm bill, it is the speed with which the Trump administration has used the program’s disaster provisions to help the victims of Hurricane Harvey.

The following account of the Agriculture Department’s actions over a matter of days should be a wake-up call to those think-tank intellectuals and politicians, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, who have proposed that food stamps—now formally the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—should be separated from the farm bill and turned into a limited block grant to each of the states.

Last week, as Harvey raged, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced that USDA had supported Texas issuing automatic, mass replacement of August SNAP benefits in the 29 counties that had received presidential disaster declarations. Added benefits to replace food lost in the storm would be loaded onto beneficiaries’ electronic benefit transfer cards, he said.

Perdue approved a request by Texas officials to allow SNAP participants in the affected counties to buy hot foods, and hot ready-to-eat foods that are usually not allowed, and notified SNAP retailers in Texas that the waiver will be in effect through Sept. 30. USDA also supported a Texas state government decision to issue SNAP benefits to all SNAP families at the beginning of the month rather than on the usual staggered schedule, so that they would have immediate purchasing power.

Perdue said that low-income households not normally eligible under regular program rules may qualify for SNAP if they meet the disaster income limits, which are slightly higher, and have qualifying disaster-related expenses such as loss of income, damage to property, and relocation expenses.

Over the weekend, Perdue added that evacuees who have traveled out of state to safer ground could use their benefits anywhere in the country for two months and that the state agencies that administer SNAP would have simplified application procedures.

“Many people have taken extraordinary measures to reach safety as a result of this historic storm, even traveling to distant states, and we’re working to make sure that paperwork and procedure don’t stand in the way of getting folks access to the food they need to feed their families,” he said.

The secretary also announced that USDA would provide food stocks to help relief organizations—including the American Red Cross, Salvation Army, and Texas Baptist Men—serve hot meals in shelters until grocery stores opened, and that schools could provide free meals to students in the affected counties.

What’s so impressive about these actions is how quickly USDA could achieve them—and how pleased Perdue and President Trump were to provide the help. “President Trump made it clear to his Cabinet that helping people is the first priority, and that process and paperwork can wait until later. USDA is already doing the work to help people in need today,” Perdue said.

The Trump administration was able to make SNAP available because a provision in the law called D-SNAP allows USDA to simplify the program in a disaster. But the fact is D-SNAP would not work if the underlying program that provides food assistance on a regular basis were not in place.

As Brandon Lipps, administrator of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, said, “FNS works every day to ensure Americans have access to food, but it is during events like this that we have to be nimble. Our job is to make it as easy as possible for our programs to be administered in a way that ensures no one affected by this disaster goes hungry.”

SNAP’s redemption system through electronic benefit transfer cards reflects the fact that the United States is one country with grocery chains that operate in many states. The stores have already noted that turning SNAP over to the states with 50 redemption schemes would be a mess in normal times. The Hurricane Harvey response shows that it would be impossible to deliver the same disaster service quickly, especially across state lines. The U.S. needs a national food-assistance program that reflects the organization of modern society.

Heritage Action, which has been a severe critic of both SNAP and the farm program, and has called for severing the link between the two in the farm bill, has parted from its usual criticism of any government spending to say it has only “minor concerns” with Trump’s initial Hurricane Harvey disaster-aid request.

USDA’s use of the SNAP tool in responding to Hurricane Harvey shows it’s time for Heritage and the politicians who follow its guidance to recognize the importance of SNAP in disasters and for low-income people in normal times.

Graphic by John Irons
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