Billions in food stamp payments to come early because of shutdown
The partial government shutdown, is the longest in U.S. history, meaning that millions of low-income Americans are about to get their February food stamps a few weeks early — an unprecedented payout of billions of dollars in benefits that has states and grocery stores scrambling.
After raising alarm that the food-stamp program could run out of funding for February, the Trump administration announced this week that it had come up with a way to bankroll more than $4.8 billion in benefits next month — with just one catch: Benefits for the nearly 39 million people enrolled in the program must be paid out by Jan. 20, weeks earlier than usual.
The workaround creates serious logistical and communication challenges and could lead to widespread confusion about how benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, will be distributed in coming months, if the spending impasse continues. The federal government has experience issuing SNAP benefits on short notice in a single state or region in response to natural disasters, but a single payout of this size and scale is uncharted territory — offering a new window into the shutdown's far-reaching effects.
"We don't know of any time this has ever happened," said Hannah Walker, senior director of technology and nutrition policy at the Food Marketing Institute, which represents retailers like Kroger, Walmart and Safeway.
Grocery retailers across the country are preparing for a potential onslaught of SNAP shoppers beginning next week, and making sure they have enough food stocked and employees on hand to handle the volume. SNAP purchases account for nearly 10 percent of all grocery business in the U.S. each year, according to recent estimates.
Many retailers are also trying to figure out how to best communicate with SNAP recipients, many of whom may be confused about why they’re getting extra benefits next week.
SNAP is overseen by the Agriculture Department but administered on the state level. States typically stagger when their benefits are uploaded onto electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, in part to make it logistically easier on grocery stores.
SNAP recipients might normally get their benefits in the first, second or even the third or fourth week of the month. For some, early issuance will mean they will get their SNAP benefits for February more than a month early.
State agencies are likely to issue SNAP benefits even earlier than Jan. 20 — the payout date USDA announced this week — since that date falls on a Sunday, during a holiday weekend. Several states are planning to issue their February benefits next Friday, Jan. 18, or in some cases even earlier, according to multiple sources familiar with state-level planning.
The average benefit per household is $249 per month. The majority of SNAP recipients are children, elderly or have a disability.
While USDA remains without funding — one of nine federal agencies affected by the partial shutdown that began on Dec. 21 — states are accepting SNAP applications for those in need without interruption. Individuals can still apply for benefits before or after Jan. 20.
The funding lapse has raised concerns about how long major federal nutrition programs, including SNAP and school meals programs, can continue to operate without a spending fix from Congress.
Funding for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, which provides staple foods, infant formula and breastfeeding support to millions of low-income pregnant mothers and their young children, also has sufficient funding for February, administration officials said this week. The program serves about half of all babies born in the United States.
School nutrition initiatives, such as the National School Lunch Program, which serves about 30 million children each day, has enough funding to last through the end of March.
SNAP is in a unique budgetary category. It’s a mandatory entitlement, which means anyone who meets the program’s income and other eligibility requirements is entitled to benefits, but the program does not have automatic funding and must rely on appropriations from Congress. Usually, Congress waives through the funding needed to keep SNAP benefits flowing — but not this time.
Program benefits were funded as normal for January. The early issuance for February was a creative method the administration devised to keep SNAP running without dipping into a reserve fund of at least $3 billion. USDA is able to make the payments for February based on an obscure provision in the short-term continuing resolution that kept several federal agencies funded through Dec. 21.
The change-up in timing for February benefits presents a major communication test for USDA and state officials — and places them on a tight deadline to implement the backup plan. USDA held a call with state leaders on Friday to try to hash out logistics. States were told they need to move quickly to work with their vendors to schedule payments next week.
SNAP is administered under a different program name in some states. In California, for example, it is called CalFresh. In Wisconsin, it goes by the name FoodShare. In Texas, benefits are loaded onto "Lone Star" cards.
Many state officials have expressed confidence that they can make the early payments work so recipients don't experience an interruption in benefits.
"It's an expedited timeline and it's a lot to work … but folks think it’s workable,” said Ann Flagg, director of the Center for Child and Family Well-Being at the American Public Human Services Association, which represents state agencies that administer SNAP and other programs.
Some state agencies are racing to send letters as soon as possible to all of their SNAP recipients, explaining the changes. Others plan to use text messages, social media or radio spots to get the word out. Across the board, states are likely to rely heavily on grocery retailers, local nonprofits and food banks to help spread the message and cut down on confusion.
"There's going to be a big challenge explaining to clients: ‘You're getting your early issuance for February. Let's say you usually get it February 5; that's not going to happen.' And we still don't know what to tell them about March,” said Ellen Vollinger, food stamp and legal director at the Food Research & Action Center, an anti-hunger group.
The Trump administration has not specified how it plans to deal with benefits if the shutdown continues and Congress does not provide money needed for SNAP benefits in March. USDA officials have said that if the shutdown continues, they'll look for other ways to keep federal nutrition programs running to the greatest extent possible.
"Americans should have access to food, and we will use all available legal options to make that happen," Brandon Lipps, administrator of USDA's Food and Nutrition Service and the department's acting deputy undersecretary of food,nutrition and consumer services, said this week.