SNAP is a critical piece of our pandemic response, and Congress needs to give it a boost

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.

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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) helps put food on the table for families who are struggling to afford a nutritious diet. SNAP is important as it helps families weather difficult times and provides a boost to the state economy. Last year, more than $800 million SNAP dollars were spent in Oklahoma grocery stores. Because it meets such a basic need, SNAP is critical during hard times like this when more families are struggling. Right now, an increased SNAP benefit is needed to help families meet basic needs. This is especially true with more family members home throughout the day and the public is encouraged to reduce trips to the store, which requires families to buy more food at once. 

The need for SNAP is growing rapidly

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services is seeing a large and rapid increase in SNAP applications. The demand has nearly tripled since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak, going from 460 average daily applications before March 15 to 1,271 average daily applications since March 15. While it’s normal to see some increase in SNAP applications during any economic downturn, the increase due to the pandemic was quick and steep. With economic forecasts predicting very high unemployment through the end of next year, the need for SNAP will remain elevated for some time.

Oklahoma has made adjustments to help reach more families in need

The Oklahoma Department of Human Services has already taken steps authorized by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act to make SNAP accessible to families in need during this unique time. All application interviews and follow-up interviews to verify information are being handled remotely, rather than in-person. Oklahoma has also extended its certification periods to allow caseworkers to focus on the influx of new applications rather than verifying eligibility for families already participating in SNAP. Oklahoma also is providing SNAP families with an emergency allotment, bringing everyone up to the maximum SNAP benefit for up to two months. This will allow them to better meet their families’ needs during this time when more household members are eating at home more often.

The federal government must act to make SNAP more effective during this crisis

The adjustments authorized by the Families First Coronavirus Response Act were a good first step in addressing increased hunger during the economic and public health crisis. However, as the pandemic wears on and the economic impact continues to worsen, Congress must do more to help struggling families with their most basic needs. SNAP is one of the most effective ways to reach low-income families and SNAP benefits should be temporarily increased by at least 15 percent for the duration of this economic downturn. This would amount to an increase of about $25 per person, or $100 per month for a family of four. 

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that oversees SNAP, should also work to make online grocery shopping more available. Currently, a pilot program that allows SNAP participants to order groceries online for delivery is operating in seven states, with five additional states recently approved to implement the program. Two of the retailers approved for online purchases in this pilot program operate nationally, and states are calling on the USDA to quickly expand the program to all states to better allow SNAP families to shop safely during this crisis. 

Adjusting SNAP to fit current needs is critical to our eventual recovery

During the Great Recession, SNAP benefits were a key piece of economic stabilization and recovery. Redemption of SNAP benefits in grocery stores between 2008 and 2010 was associated with increased employment. In fact, SNAP spending had a greater effect on employment during the recession than other recession relief spending. SNAP can help to stabilize a declining economy, and making the program as effective as possible is in everyone’s best interest right now. Food security is economic security — when people have adequate nutritious food, they are healthier, better able to fight off illness, and able to work as soon as good jobs are available. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Courtney Cullison joined OK Policy in March 2017 as a policy analyst focusing on issues of economic opportunity and financial security. Before coming to OK Policy, Courtney worked in higher education, holding faculty positions at the University of Texas at Tyler and at Connors State College in eastern Oklahoma. A native Oklahoman, she received an Honors B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. with emphasis in congressional politics and public policy from the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Courtney was a fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. As a professor she taught classes in American politics, public policy, and research methods and conducted original research with a focus on the relationship between representatives and the constituents they serve.

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