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Community advocates push back on planned change to SNAP program

A sign reading "We welcome SNAP benefits"
United States Department of Agriculture

The Delaware Community Legal Aid Society and others are pushing back on a proposal to require families relying on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to recertify eligibility more frequently.

The proposed change by the Division of Social Services would require most households to recertify for the food assistance program every six months; currently recertification is needed at least every 12 months, with exceptions for households in which every member is disabled or elderly. The shorter deadlines were adopted in practice in 2020, and the Division of Social Services is now preparing to formalize the changes in its manual.

In a public notice announcing the change, the division says that under the previous deadlines it wasn’t receiving adequate updates about changes in households’ circumstances, including changes to income, that would impact their benefits. Though the program is administered through the Division of Social Services, it uses federal funding from the US Department of Agriculture.

Division of Social Services policy chief Janeen Boyce says that state-administered SNAP programs with high error rates — meaning that a high number of households are either over- or under-provided benefits — can result in sanctions by the USDA.

Delaware faced sanctions shortly before the pandemic as a result of a high error rate: a key reason why the Division of Social Services is now planning to update its recertification timeline, Boyce says.

"Not only does the state have to pay back money," she says, "but clients who received more benefits than they were eligible for would also have to pay back that money."

In 2019, Delaware had the fourth-highest error rate in the country, including the District of Columbia. In both 2018 and 2019, the USDA held Delaware's Department of Health and Social Services liable for more than $1 million for exceeding the national standard for SNAP error rates — an amount that the Department could either pay back to the USDA or partially invest in improvements to the administration of the SNAP program.

To recoup excess benefits paid to SNAP recipients, the program cuts back benefits payments by a small percentage until it recoups the excess benefits it provided.

Boyce also points out that under previous rules, SNAP participants still had to turn in interim reports on their income, household size and other factors relevant to their eligibility. If they didn't tun in those reports, the Division of Social Services closed their case.

Division of Social Services Deputy Director Marcella Spady says that the interim reports were a key factor in Delaware's error rate: many clients didn't provide complete updates on their living circumstances in their interim reports, leaving the division's quality control team to discover mismatches between the benefits clients received and the benefits for which they are eligible. "The periodic review was a way to confirm information that we have from the last recertification," she said. "And the client could say there were no changes to their circumstances, even if there were."

The recertification process, Boyce adds, is more thorough than the interim reports. "It allows us to check our databases, verify their information, and interview the client," she said.

For instance, while the Division of Social Services doesn't have access to clients' tax returns, it can use its database to confirm whether a client's reported income falls within the eligibility range for benefits.

Recertification also requires SNAP recipients to take part in an interview with program administrators, though that requirement has been paused during the pandemic.

But Community Legal Aid Society staff attorney Gilberte Pierre says recertification is more logistically difficult than the interim reports, and more frequent recertification could drive households out of the program.

“Then you have a domino effect. Individuals have to decide between putting food on the table and paying rent, and if you don’t pay your rent, that leads to eviction.”

In Georgetown, a woman living in an encampment who asked to be called Little Bit says the recertification process itself is manageable, though she has trouble keeping the necessary documents safe while living outside — after losing other forms of identification, she relies on an ID card issued to her by the Delaware Department of Correction. But missing a recertification deadline creates a much larger hassle.

“As long as you don’t forget when it is, because if you forget, then it gets cut off and you have to go through the whole process again.”

Pierre notes that during the time it takes for a household to re-apply for benefits, they may also struggle to find adequate food.

The Delaware Coalition Against Domestic Violence also pushed back against the proposed change to the manual, pointing out that many families experiencing domestic violence rely on SNAP, and that losing access to the program because of a missed deadline would create dangerous instability. "As more families lose access to these benefits, the subsequent economic insecurity limits individuals' ability to leave unsafe relationships," Coalition Policy Director Nick Beard wrote to the Division of Social Services. "This change to SNAP hinders individuals from achieving the financial independence necessary to prevent violence."

Beard adds that since the Division of Social Services first tightened recertification deadlines in 2020, her organization has observed an increase in domestic violence survivors reporting difficulty retaining their SNAP benefits, though she adds that it's difficult to attribute that increase to the recertification deadlines alone. "What I can say is that for survivors, keeping up with shorter deadlines is especially challenging," she says. "Getting everything together and meeting deadlines is difficult when you're already in crisis. Overall, the feedback is that the whole process is arduous."

Beard says that the state could meet with advocates to discuss ways to bring down error rates without adding stress to SNAP recipients.

The Division of Social Services says that it has spent the past two years working to make sure SNAP recipients are able to provide the documents necessary to recertify on a more regular basis. Spady says that given the instability that many Delaware households experienced over the past two years, many SNAP recipients may be in more dire circumstances than the agency's records reflect. "If we don't get that update and are not able to confirm that, you might still be getting less benefits when you're entitled to a much more," she said.

The changes to the Division of Social Services manual are scheduled to be finalized on November 11.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.