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Stimulus bill temporarily expands safety net for poor

Bill would protect jobless food stamp recipients from losing their benefits

The stimulus package would give the USDA nearly $1 billion in additional funding for major food programs.
The stimulus package would give the USDA nearly $1 billion in additional funding for major food programs. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House-passed stimulus package would protect jobless food stamp recipients from losing their benefits if they live in an area under a public health emergency declaration by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The provision in the bill  would exempt Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries from work and training requirements they might not be able to meet in those areas.

This would be especially important to a segment of SNAP participants known as single able-bodied adults without dependents who are aged 18 to 49. Under a 1996 law, this group can only receive food stamps for three months out of every 36 months if they do not meet a 20-hour a week requirement for work or training. SNAP was formerly known as the food stamp program. Any extension of food stamp benefits for them would not count against their statutory time limit.  

An Agriculture Department rule set to take effect in April would restrict the ability of states to use waivers to exempt this group from work requirements and time limits, ending benefits for an estimated 700,000 people.

Hours before the House voted on the stimulus package, the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia issued a nationwide preliminary injunction and stay pending judicial review of the regulation’s language on how the USDA determines the criteria for issuing state waivers that allow the exemptions. Nineteen states, the District of Columbia and New York City filed the lawsuit.

“The Final Rule adopts unreasonably narrow criteria for implementing the statutory requirements for evaluating waivers,” Chief Judge Beryl A. Howell wrote on Friday. “Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential.”

Other provisions in the stimulus package would give the USDA nearly $1 billion in additional funding for major food programs, potentially increase monthly food stamp benefits and ease restrictions on school districts serving low-income children who otherwise would lose access to federally subsidized meals because of school closures resulting from the COVID-19 disease.

The legislation would expand the USDA’s authority to establish a national waiver for all affected states to continue programs for school breakfast and lunch, daycaremeals, and summer food programs during school closures.

The legislation would allow those who run the programs to provide meals at off-site locations that do not require children to eat in a centralized place.

The provision had bipartisan support as did language providing additional funding for food banks and a popular program for pregnant women and children aged 5 and younger. But the bill also reflects Democratic priorities for a stronger safety net for the poor and working poor who may be adversely affected by school closures, lost jobs and other financial pressures as the coronavirus batters parts of the U.S. economy.

The legislation would open the door to temporary boosts in monthly food stamp benefits in areas under state-declared public health emergencies if the USDA accepts a state’s justification for such action. The USDA would be required to post all state submissions and its decisions.

The Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program for pregnant women, nursing mothers and children up to age 5 would receive $500 million that could be used for emergencies through Sept. 30, 2021. Congress appropriated $6 billion for WIC in fiscal 2020.

A program that provides food banks with items such as canned, frozen, dried, and fresh fruits and vegetables, eggs, meat, poultry, fish, rice, cereal and pasta would receive a $300 million boost for purchases and $100 million for storage and distribution cost during a declared public health emergency. The funding would help food banks handle an expected surge in demand. The funding would be available through Sept. 30, 2021.  Congress provided $322.3 million in mandatory funding and $79.6 million for administrative costs.

The package also would revive a procedure used during the 2009 outbreak of H1N1 influenza that provided families participating in SNAP with additional funds for food for children whose schools closed for at least five consecutive days as officials worked to contain the spread of the illness. The money would be added to electronic benefit cards SNAP enrollees use to make purchases at grocery stores and other food retailers.

The money is designed to help low-income families afford additional food for their children who otherwise would not have access to free or reduced-price school meals.

The USDA would review and approve state plans to provide the temporary emergency boosts. Families not currently receiving food stamp benefits but who have children eligible for subsidized school lunches and breakfast could receive money to help with feeding.

The state plans would take effect when a public health emergency is declared in a state.  

The Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico and American and Samoa, which operate separate food aid programs, would be able to receive grants from a pool of $100 million to provide aid to affected families in their jurisdiction.  

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