Across the region, local officials are concerned that families will be unaware of the bureaucratic steps they need to take, inadvertently losing much-needed benefits during an economic crisis.
“It’s a big problem,” D.C. Department of Human Services spokeswoman Dora Taylor-Lowe said. “This is not the time for people who are already vulnerable to lose their benefits. It’s just insane."
Hunger has become a rampant problem regionally and across the country during the coronavirus-induced economic downturn. The Capital Area Food Bank forecasts that an additional quarter-million people in the D.C. region could be unable to feed themselves in the coming year.
In April 2020, the latest month for which USDA data is available, 5.8 million Americans started claiming new SNAP benefits, including a 10 percent increase over the previous month in the District, a 16 percent increase in Maryland and an 8.5 percent increase in Virginia.
For families who received food stamps before the pandemic, “recertification” is a familiar and time-consuming ritual. Usually once or twice a year, but sometimes as often as every month depending on their circumstances, they gather up a pile of documents showing everything about their financial life — pay stubs, bank statements, leases, utility bills and more — and bring it to the waiting room at a government service center. There, a government interviewer looks it all over, to determine whether the family will keep receiving SNAP benefits.
When the coronavirus pandemic began, the USDA halted those visits and promised that everyone who gets federal funding to pay for groceries would keep receiving it during the crisis without needing to recertify.
With that reprieve ending, state governments are scrambling to figure out how to make sure needy families keep getting grocery money during an economic downturn, without crowding them into waiting rooms where they could catch the virus.
The D.C. Department of Human Services, which administers the SNAP program in the city, asked the USDA for a waiver to keep putting off recertifications and was told that there would be no waivers past August.
A USDA spokeswoman said in an email to The Washington Post that the six months of waivers, from March through August, should have been enough time for states to set up the process virtually, and that it is important that benefit recipients continue to prove their income.
“USDA provided this flexibility at the beginning of the pandemic to allow states to adjust to an influx of new applications and need to design new protocols to support social distancing and telework,” she wrote. “The recertification process is vital to ensuring SNAP families are still eligible to receive SNAP and receive the proper level of benefits. USDA is working with states to return to a new normal.”
Some states have long offered a remote option for SNAP recipients to recertify; in Virginia, Department of Social Services staffer Cletisha Lovelace said that recipients have been able to apply through an online form plus a telephone interview since 2012.
While 39,000 Virginians will be required to recertify in September or lose their benefits, Lovelace said, those residents will have the option to apply without going to a service center in person, which could pose a coronavirus risk. Virginia did not request a waiver to continue past August.
But the end of the USDA waivers appears to have caught D.C. off guard. Taylor-Lowe said her department has rushed to create a mobile app and an online platform that recipients can use in place of the regular office visit.
Even if that effort is successful, some people don’t have the technology needed to scan or photograph documents. Taylor-Lowe said she worries that others will simply assume that they don’t have to recertify until the pandemic is over — and will inadvertently lose their benefits.
“We thought they would just keep waiving the requirement until the end of the pandemic, but they’ve denied our requests for that,” she said. “It looks like people will lose their benefits.”
Those who can’t use the online application, which Taylor-Lowe says will be available by September, will need to come to a D.C. service center in person to recertify. Taylor-Lowe said the department is working on figuring out how to observe social distancing processes in the offices as much as possible.
The problem is even more immediate in Maryland, where the first recipients could lose their benefits on Sept. 1, a month before D.C. and Virginia residents. The USDA denied the waiver that Maryland requested even for the month of August, Maryland Department of Human Services spokeswoman Katherine Morris said. D.C. did receive a waiver for August.
More than 830,000 Maryland residents receive SNAP benefits.
“The loss of any SNAP waiver would adversely impact our ability to assist those Marylanders who are particularly vulnerable during this pandemic,” Morris wrote in an email. “As a nation, we must take every action within our control to ensure this health crisis does not become a food security crisis.”