States Look For Backup On Food Stamps

Although the federal government came through with funding for food stamps through February, states are still eyeing contingency plans if the money dries up during the shutdown.

President Trump listens to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue during a signing ceremony for H.R. 2, on Dec. 20.
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin
Jan. 10, 2019, 8 p.m.

The Trump administration may now be guaranteeing food-stamp benefits through February, but the month-long reprieve is not shifting state officials’ focus on developing contingency plans if the funding eventually dries up.

With the end of the government shutdown nowhere in sight, the Agriculture Department told states Tuesday it has managed to fund the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which supports around 38 million low-income Americans, through February.

But funding for SNAP beyond the February allotment is tenuous. States are considering backup funds in their budgets and looking to partner with local groups in order to fill benefits gap if it is disrupted.

Acting Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Brandon Lipps told reporters on Tuesday that after February, there would still be $3 billion in the agency’s contingency fund for the nutrition program, which is estimated as costing $4.8 billion a month.

D.C. City Administrator Rashad Young said during a press briefing this week that city officials are looking at options to keep SNAP benefits going for city residents even if the government remains shut down and funds are not appropriated.

“If we get much past, much towards the end of the month, and certainly into the next month, we’re going to be even more concerned about those benefits,” he told reporters. “So our team [is] meeting this week to talk about what contingency plans we might need to put in place if in fact the shutdown continues and that benefit is jeopardized, and we’re likely looking at ways that we can make sure we shore that program up in the short-term.”

Young said in a statement to National Journal that the city is looking at contingency resources to support families on SNAP. “In the event programs such as SNAP experience funding challenges, the District will access our contingency resources for short-term relief to ensure families retain access to this much-needed support,” he said. “As in previous federal shutdowns, the District will seek reimbursement for funding we provide.”

Louisiana, on the other hand, does not have backup money should the federal government fail to pay for benefits after February, said the Louisiana Division of Administration spokesperson Jacques Berry. “The state doesn’t have any way to step in to pay for it,” he told National Journal Thursday.

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, meanwhile, is monitoring funding levels and working with “our federal partners on contingency plans to extend these programs as long as possible,” said department press assistant Kelly Haight in an email to National Journal.

Even with the USDA’s latest announcement, states will still develop backup plans as the USDA’s action only delays possible disruptions until the end of February, said Ann Flagg, the director for the American Public Human Services Association’s Center for Child and Family Well-Being. The association represents state and local health and human service agencies.

“Obviously, the state and local health and human services leaders are committed to maintaining health and well-being of children and families in their communities, so right now they’re working tirelessly to develop these contingencies using existing federal, state, local resources, and existing partnerships with community and faith-based organizations,” said Flagg.

“There’s no magic answer to this beyond finding resolution to the budget impasse,” she added.

Keeping food stamps going without federal assistance could be a heavy lift for states, particularly since the federal government covers the total cost of the benefits for the program, said David Super, a professor at Georgetown Law with a focus on public-welfare law.

“This isn’t a line item in anybody’s budget,” he said. “It’s not like the states, in Medicaid, the states are already paying for a large part of the benefits. States aren’t paying for SNAP benefits at all, so I would guess that most states simply wouldn’t have room in their budget and it would take them a considerable period of time to come up with the money to do that.”

Super suggested that states have another tool in their arsenal should the federal government fail to come through with SNAP benefits as the shutdown continues. Congress set up the SNAP program to continue even if appropriations fail to come through, and if USDA later decides to cut off benefits, recipients or states could possibly bring a lawsuit, he said.

A SNAP recipient brought such a lawsuit in 2015 when federal officials indicated that SNAP benefits would be discontinued during the budget impasse at that time. “Congress structured the Food and Nutrition Act to direct benefits to continue even where, as here, the annual appropriations legislation for SNAP is delayed,” the complaint stated. “Specifically, unlike other benefit programs, the Act makes SNAP benefits an ‘entitlement’ that Defendants are directed to continue to issue while awaiting annual appropriations legislation.”

The case was eventually dismissed as moot because a continuing resolution, followed by a full appropriations bill, was passed.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said Tuesday that the additional month of SNAP benefits buys Congress time to get the issues over the border funding resolved.

“The natural question from SNAP recipients, states and the media will be, ‘What about March?’” he said in a phone call with reporters Tuesday. “To that I say we provided an additional month of SNAP benefits with this solution. I believe this is ample time for Congress to act and to send the president an appropriations bill he is able to sign.”

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