23 March 2023 | Economic Security

Ending of Public Health Emergency Brings Changes to SNAP Benefits & Eligiblity

Erin Melton | March 21, 2023

Many adjustments and enhancements were made to food assistance programs over the course of the pandemic. These changes have helped Kansans through difficulty in the past few years. But many of those enhancements will end soon. Once these food security programs revert to pre-pandemic rules, Kansas families will be affected in several ways. 

The U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) first declared a nationwide public health emergency (PHE) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020. Soon after, the March 2020 Families First Coronavirus Response Act granted the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) waiver authority over various administrative and benefit issuance components of federal nutrition programs, including child nutrition programs, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) (called food assistance in Kansas).

The 2021 American Rescue Plan Act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 granted the USDA further authority to increase SNAP and WIC benefit amounts across the country, among other adjustments. This has meant that families receiving critical nutrition assistance have been given some grace as they navigate the pandemic’s fallout. But much of the flexibility this FNS waiver authority has given to agencies and families will end soon, since HHS announced in January 2023 that the PHE will end May 11, 2023.

Kansas took up and then let expire various food assistance and WIC waivers over the course of the PHE, but some essential changes remain in place.

Early in the pandemic, Kansas joined many other states waiving in-person interviews, extending certification periods, and making other adjustments to keep food assistance recipients and case workers safe. The SNAP food assistance adjustments still in place are:

  • Usually, “able-bodied adults without dependents” (ABAWDs) are limited to three months of food assistance in a 36-month period unless they are working at least 20 hours per week. The bipartisan Families First Coronavirus Response Act suspended that time limit, keeping food on the tables of many Kansans who unexpectedly and suddenly lost work during the pandemic.
    • During the 2022 session, the Kansas Legislature passed legislation that makes the food assistance employment and training program mandatory for ABAWDs not working 30 hours or more per week. This new mandatory program overrides the time limit waiver. The Department for Children and Families (DCF) began rolling this legislation out prior to the end of the PHE, so some households likely already faced sanctions and additional requirements similar to what will happen to others when the PHE ends.
  • Federal rules require that full-time college students meet an exemption, such as working at least 20 hours per week in addition to classes or having a young child, in order to qualify for SNAP. Since January 2021, all college students who qualify for work study and/or have an expected family contribution to their college expenses of $0 have been eligible for food assistance.

For WIC families, waivers have allowed flexibility for in-person medical examination requirements, certification periods, and various food substitutions. The WIC adjustments still in place are:

Currently, most of these waivers and flexibilities are tied to the PHE while others will end sooner or extend later. Most changes are set to end 30-90 days following the final day that the PHE is active. This will likely lead to what some anti-hunger advocacy organizations are calling a “hunger cliff.”

Kansas families who have relied on these flexibilities and benefit increases may already be facing a food security crisis.

This is perhaps clearest for Kansas food assistance recipients who have been receiving the maximum monthly benefit amount through Emergency Allotments (EAs). EAs were initially tied to the PHE, but the December 2022 federal omnibus bill changed that and Congress declared that February 2023 would be the last month for families to receive the increased food benefit. When EAs ended a few weeks ago, Kansans receiving food assistance lost an average of $82 per person per month that had been going directly to grocery costs.

The working poor in Kansas, many of whom have been facing unpredictable work hours and unexpected job loss over the last three years, will be subject to an even stricter work requirement than they faced prior to the pandemic, potentially even before the PHE ends. This will affect thousands of Kansans; those who cannot meet the harsher requirements (and are not eligible for any exemption) will lose out on food assistance benefits altogether despite the costs of necessities rising rapidly.

College students, a group whose hunger has long been ignored by nutrition programs, will once again be facing limiting SNAP eligibility requirements, making it harder for those who no longer qualify to focus on the education that will help them establish self-sufficiency.

Fortunately, WIC families will not have their fresh produce allowance cut back to its pre-pandemic level. The federal omnibus sustained the cash value benefit increase through September 2023. Additionally, FNS will allow states to continue operating with physical presence and remote benefit issuance waivers for WIC participants through September 2026, which will allow families with transportation barriers or health concerns to access to the program.

With a set end date for the PHE, Kansas families and advocates are preparing for the reintroduction of restrictions that will likely reduce access to food supports. Even before the pandemic, in 2019, 17.1 percent of Kansas kids were food insecure. The same year, Kansas families had a combined $177,384,000 less than they needed to keep food on their tables.

Kansans already scrambling to make ends meet will have their nutrition funds further disrupted. More than three years past the start of the pandemic, food costs are higher than ever. Grocery purchase costs increased 11.3 percent from January 2022 to January 2023. Families’ food budget shortfall, which is already significantly greater due to the end of SNAP EAs, is likely to grow even more when the PHE ends.

The agencies administering these programs are required to notify participating Kansans before their benefit amounts and/or eligibility requirements and determinations change.

Kansans receiving food assistance should hear from DCF, and those receiving WIC should hear from their local WIC agency before their benefits change.

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