March 15, 2022
Several temporary SNAP improvements have mitigated food hardship during the COVID-19 crisis. Many of those measures are tied to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Pandemic Public Health Emergency Declaration (PHE). When that ends , it could result in a significant “hunger cliff” for millions of people. Most SNAP participants, on average, will lose $82 a month in SNAP benefits. Moreover, some procedural flexibilities could end with the PHE and that loss could simultaneously exacerbate administrative workload and program access challenges.
This blog focuses on procedural flexibilities available during COVID-19 and on strategies to promote efficient and equitable SNAP access and good customer service before, during, and beyond any post-PHE transitional period. Part 1 of this two-part blog summarizes the array of SNAP aid tied to the duration of that PHE declaration, makes the case for maintaining it, and outlines legislative actions to permanently strengthen SNAP benefit amounts and eligibility provisions.
Part 2 of this blog (below).
Outlook on Duration of PHE
In January 2022, HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra renewed the federal pandemic public health emergency (PHE) declaration until April 16, 2022. HHS could further extend it if the public health emergency conditions are warranted. The Biden Administration has advised states they will have 60 days-notice  before the Administration allows the PHE to expire.
Underlying and Special COVID-19 USDA Authority to Grant Flexibility to SNAP State Agencies
SNAP is a federal/state partnership, with federal law setting out basic rules on eligibility and operations. USDA has significant permanent authority to grant waivers of particular rules for projects for research, demonstratives, and evaluations.  It also can grant regulatory waivers “when the specific regulatory provision cannot be implemented due to extraordinary temporary situations” or “FNS determines that the waiver would result in a more effective and efficient administration of the program.” FNS maintains a SNAP waiver database with information about state’s approved waivers. 
At the outset of the pandemic, using its then existing authority, USDA FNS began granting some state requests for waivers of particular SNAP state administrative procedures. States had pointed to social distancing, remote operations, and workload issues as factors in seeking a variety of waivers. USDA, however, also rejected many state waiver requests in early 2020, including requests to use Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) tools to respond to the pandemic, the college student rule, and others.
In the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) passed in March 2020, Congress initially gave USDA specific SNAP waiver authority to grant certain state waiver requests so long as both a federal PHE and state emergency declaration were in place. Specifically, FFCRA allowed USDA to approve adjustments in “issuance methods and application and reporting requirements…to be consistent with what is practicable under actual conditions in affected areas.” 
In fall 2020, Congress also provided states with temporary flexibility to make some adjustments to certification periods, interviews, and other SNAP operations without prior USDA approval.  Further, to assist SNAP state agencies cope with challenges in the wake of COVID-19, Congress took steps in December 2020  and March 2021. to boost state SNAP administrative funding temporarily. The USDA also took action in March 2021 to extend the duration of and procedures for sustaining available flexibilities to support effective implementation and reduce paperwork burdens on state agencies. 
SNAP Flexibilities During COVID-19
During the COVID-19 crisis when demand for services increased and much of the work was performed remotely, states have been allowed to adapt certain aspects of SNAP operations.  The temporary flexibilities have helped alleviate the burdens on administrators, clients, and other stakeholders.
Among other things, states have been allowed to:
- enroll SNAP households without an interview if they had the information needed for processing the case;
- streamline methods for accommodating telephonic signatures;
- extend certification periods & simplify reporting requirements;
- conduct interviews for Disaster SNAP virtually rather than in-person.
According to a survey of state SNAP administrators from the American Public Human Services Association “The certification and interview adjustment waivers were critical for managing caseloads, removing barriers to enrollment for new SNAP applicants, and maintaining benefit access for current SNAP beneficiaries.”
1. Legislative Strategies
Congress should act to pass bills that improve SNAP benefits and eligibility on a permanent basis. As explained in Part I of this blog, these include H.R. 4007/S. 2192 , H.R. 1753 , and H.R. 1919/S. 2515 .
Congress also should act to ensure effective and equitable procedural access to SNAP by passing bills that:
- ensure that USDA can continue to grant waivers that have been effective during COVID-19 at least for a transitional period once PHE ends and for some things on a permanent basis.
- ensure that D-SNAP responds to pandemic  and that SNAP benefit enhancements and flexibilities are triggered automatically in recessions and pandemics. 
- provide greater federal funding for SNAP administration on a permanent basis. 
2. Leverage USDA’s Underlying Authority
USDA should consider using its demonstration authority to accommodate adjustments. It also should make greater use of its underlying statutory authority to approve waivers for a transitional period post-PHE or if the waivers “would result in a more effective and efficient administration of the program.”
USDA also should be proactive in offering states guidance about responsibilities and best practices about post-PHE operations. For example, HHS has provided guidance to states on transition planning and workload management for processing Medicaid cases under regular rules after the PHE ends. 
USDA already has advised states about their responsibilities and options to protect individuals’ access to SNAP when the PHE ends and with it the end to the FFCRA temporary suspension of time limits.  In December 2022, it issued guidance about transition planning for SNAP case processing after the PHE. 
Going forward, USDA should provide guidance to states on a variety of issues so that states can best serve SNAP customers during COVID-19 and beyond. Among other things:
- USDA should provide states with guidance and tools to help ensure that SNAP customers are properly screened for deductions as well as work with states to update their Standard Utility Allowances. 
- As urged by 21 Senators and 73 Representatives, USDA should issue guidance to clarify which college student groups are eligible for SNAP benefits without work requirement. 
Get Involved with FRAC’s Action Network
Speak out about the looming hunger cliff before temporary SNAP relief provisions end. Urge Members of Congress and the Biden Administration to use available legislative and administrative strategies to prevent the hunger cliff and to strengthen SNAP permanently. Send an email or share a social media post using FRAC’s Action Network.
 See 7 U.S.C. section 2011-236 and 7 CFR section 282
 See 7 CFR 272.3 ( c)(1)
 FFCRA, section 2302(a)(2)
 See Continuing Appropriations Act, 2021 and Other Extensions Act, Pub. L. No. 116-159, §4603.
 See https://www.agriculture.senate.gov/newsroom/dem/press/release/ranking-member-stabenow-leads-bipartisan-effort-to-secure-increases-in-food-assistance-support-for-farmers-in-final-covid-19-package
 See https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/media/file/signed%20SNAP-AmericanRescuePlanAct2021.pdf and https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/administrative-funding-allocations-american-rescue-plan-act-2021
 In 2020 then Senator Kamela Harris introduced the Pandemic Disaster Assistance Act (S. 3534) to clarify that a D-SNAP can respond to pandemics.
 See., e.g., Families in Crisis Act of 2020, H.R. 6722, 116th Cong, (2020; Hilary H. Hoynes and Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, “Strengthening SNAP as an Automatic Stabilizer,” Brookings (May 19, 2019) https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/HoynesSchanzenbach_web_20190506.pdf;
 See https://frac.org/wp-content/uploads/FRAC-Transition-Recommendations-to-Address-Hunger-in-US-2020.pdf at page 10 (FRAC recommendation to Biden Administration transition team)