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States scramble to get February food stamps out amid shutdown

The lapse in funding for the Agriculture Department due to the shutdown is complicating people getting their food stamp benefits. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

State and county workers spent the weekend gathering information needed to make sure 38 million low-income people receive their February food stamp benefits early despite a partial federal government shutdown.

The Agriculture Department prompted the flurry of activity when it announced last week that it would tap the remaining budget authority in an expired continuing resolution to provide states $4.8 billion to cover February benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

As a result, states, counties, tribal governments and U.S. territories are scrambling to compile beneficiary information since the USDA’s budget authority for the funding ends Jan. 21. The federal government funds SNAP but state and local authorities administer the benefits.

Some SNAP employees will work up to the Tuesday close-of-business deadline to forward the files to contractors responsible for loading the benefits onto individual electronic cards that people enrolled in SNAP can use to buy food. SNAP was formerly known as the food stamp program.

The contractors then have until Jan. 20 to get the benefits out to recipients. USDA left it to state officials to get the word out to SNAP workers and supervisors.

Minnesota, for example, offered a glimpse into how it will tackle what Alicia Smith, the department’s advisor on American Indian issues, called “significant work in a short timeframe.” She made the comments during a webinar Friday with state SNAP offices.

State officials warned that employees might have to work overtime to meet the Tuesday deadline. Nikki Farago, the state’s deputy assistant commissioner for Children and Family Services, acknowledged that the shutdown will be difficult for staff and recipients.

Minnesota has about 400,000 SNAP beneficiaries, but state officials focused on 32,000 cases of people who recently applied for benefits, require recertification for benefits or are undergoing periodic reviews that typically require more time to process. The benefits for the other beneficiaries should be easier to process because they are certified and do not require additional work, officials said.

Access to the Minnesota’s MAXIS computer system would be provided several hours on Saturday and Sunday with additional hours on Monday and Tuesday. MAXIS is used in Minnesota to determine a person’s eligibility for several programs, including the state-run SNAP program.

SNAP offices in Minnesota and across the United States will continue to accept new applications for benefits after Jan. 20 although it is unclear if USDA will be able to provide funding beyond February. Under federal law, states cannot stop people from applying.

This week state officials said they will meet with SNAP advocates and send letters out to SNAP beneficiaries. Similar meetings are occurring across the country as other states rush to meet the deadlines.

Jerry Loud, executive director of the Red Lake Nation’s community services, said notification should be sent out as soon as possible to SNAP recipients to reduce confusion.

He was told by a state official that beneficiaries would get a letter this week telling them their February benefits will be added to their cards early before Feb. 1. He added that recipients are told that they “should budget carefully” since USDA says it has not determined where it will find funding for March benefits if the shutdown continues.

President Donald Trump and Congress are still at an impasse over funding for the president’s proposed border wall, signaling a potential lengthy shutdown.

The department has a $3 billion contingency reserve fund it could tap, but the available money is less than the full amount needed for benefits. The shortfall between $3 billion and the $4.8 billion needed to pay benefits could result in USDA having to cut monthly benefits in March to stretch the money.

Brandon Lipps, acting USDA deputy undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, told reporters during a Jan. 8 call that “if Congress does not send the president a bill he can sign to give these folks certainty in receiving their benefits, we will move to March in determining every scenario we have possible to ensure that they continue to have access to food.”

In a Jan. 10 email, the Minnesota Department of Human Resources told its workers that the state does not know what will happen beyond February.

“We have growing concerns about the length of time that USDA remains shut down and how it will affect our ability to provide food assistance to the 400,000 people receiving SNAP in Minnesota in March,” the email said. “You know just how critical these benefits are to putting food on the table for children, seniors and people with disabilities as well as other Minnesotans with low incomes.”

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