Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participation in Kentucky has increased by 110,292 people since social distancing began to reduce transmission of COVID-19. This dramatic 22.9% increase since February reflects the hardship many are facing due to lost jobs and income. In addition to the steps already taken at the state and federal level to strengthen SNAP, Congress should further increase food security through a boost in SNAP’s modest benefit amounts.
SNAP participation grows during a downturn to help feed people and stimulate the economy
Nearly one in seven Kentuckians are now getting assistance purchasing groceries through SNAP. As shown in the graph above, participation also grew during the Great Recession, but less rapidly due to the slower pace of that downturn. Like Medicaid and unemployment insurance, SNAP is a “counter-cyclical” program, meaning more people become eligible as economic hardship increases. SNAP catches people when they are in financial need, reducing hunger and improving health.
SNAP also stimulates local economies. It helps families spend what they need on food and offsets some of the overall family budget – freeing up money for things like rent, utilities and medicine. Since much of that spending is in the local economy, SNAP resulted in $1.79 in economic activity for every $1 spent during the Great Recession. In April alone, SNAP, which is federally funded, paid for $103.7 million in groceries across the commonwealth.
The more people in need who can participate, the more SNAP can help prevent an even deeper recession. This is why removing barriers to SNAP and other anti-recession programs is so important. Policies like time limits, bans and other “unwelcome mat” practices blunt the effectiveness of SNAP to shorten economic downturns and improve health. Recent policy changes have helped to remove some of those barriers.
Widespread increase in SNAP participation points to far reach of COVID-19 downturn for low-wage workers
Every county in Kentucky has seen an increase in SNAP participation, with the climb between February and April ranging from 0.5 to 4.2 percentage points of county populations. Because eligibility for SNAP requires an income of 100% FPL ($26,200 for a family of four) after certain living expenses are accounted for, measuring the increase in SNAP participation is helpful for determining how low-wage workers in Kentucky are faring during this downturn. April participation data shows that low-wage workers across the commonwealth have turned to SNAP for help affording basic needs in both rural counties like Magoffin and Lee, but also in the urban core of Jefferson County.
Although some of those eastern Kentucky counties had the highest percentage point growth in SNAP participation, Jefferson County, the state’s largest county, had the highest increase in the number of SNAP participants at 25,240 – accounting for nearly a quarter of the statewide total growth.
Policy changes are improving access to SNAP, but additional federal action is needed
Several new provisions in the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, in addition to a series of state changes, have improved support and administrative flexibility for SNAP in order to better meet the needs of Kentuckians:
- Families First provided $28.7 million in Emergency SNAP to Kentucky for the 154,000 (68%) of SNAP households not already receiving the maximum benefit amount. Since emergency SNAP benefits began in late March, the average household benefit has increased from $261 in March to $391 in April.
- The state extended recertification periods by 6 months, allowing people who are currently enrolled to stay enrolled for longer without being cut off or having to risk in-person meetings to verify their continued eligibility.
- Because in-person services with the Department for Community Based Services were closed in order to reduce the spread of COVID-19, the state expanded its call center capacity to make sure there was not an application bottleneck. According to cabinet officials, wait times have dramatically decreased and very few people are hanging up before having their issue resolved.
- Another state administrative change enables SNAP participants to make online grocery purchases, which allows Kentuckians to use their SNAP cards for grocery curbside pickup or delivery. This helps reduce barriers to buying groceries and reduces the risk of infection for those who would otherwise have to in person.
These policy changes have helped bolster SNAP’s role as both a safety net and stimulus program, but more is needed to reduce individual hardship and blunt the economic harm caused by COVID-19. As a first step to decrease the number of families facing food insecurity, the Families First Act provided emergency benefits to many SNAP households. However, those benefits leave out about 40% of households including those with the lowest incomes.
In the next federal COVID-19 bill — like during the Great Recession — Congress should increase the SNAP maximum allotment by 15% until the economy recovers. This would provide an estimated additional $100 per month for a qualifying family of four, for example, through the duration of the crisis.