|April 1, 2021
|Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – Emergency Allotments
|All SNAP State Agencies
All Food and Nutrition Service Regional SNAP Directors
The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) intends to issue updated Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) – Emergency Allotments (EA) guidance, on April 1, 2021. The aforementioned guidance will supersede the guidance set forth in the relevant memoranda issued by FNS on March 20, 2020, and April 21, 2020. The guidance will provide benefits to certain eligible households, including those receiving SNAP benefits at the statutory maximum, that were previously deemed ineligible for emergency allotments by USDA.
USDA recognizes that this is a change in position. The agency has taken this new position after a reassessment of its authority under Section 2302(a) of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act. Upon further consideration, USDA now believes the text of Section 2302(a)(1) is ambiguous as to whether it (1) caps the amount of standard benefits plus the emergency allotments at “the applicable maximum monthly allotment for the household size” (USDA's prior position), or (2) permits emergency allotments above that level. Since USDA's initial interpretation, federal courts have issued conflicting decisions concerning the proper reading of Section 2302(a)(1). See Hall v. United States Dep't of Agric., 984 F.3d 825, 832 (9th Cir. 2020) (endorsing USDA's initial reading of Section 2302(a)(1), with one dissenting judge); Gilliam v. United States Dep't of Agric., No. 20-CV-3504-JMY, 2020 WL 5501220, at *2 (E.D. Pa. Sept. 11, 2020) (concluding that USDA's initial reading of Section 2302(a)(1) was impermissibly restrictive). The differing judicial views about the proper scope of Section 2302(a)(1) reinforce the conclusion that it is, at a minimum, susceptible to more than one reading.
USDA is now of the view that the better interpretation of section 2302(a)(1) is that it provides USDA with discretion to provide emergency allotments for temporary food needs even when the recipient's aggregate SNAP benefits would exceed the applicable statutory maximum for its household size. That interpretation better aligns with Congress's purpose of providing assistance to families most in need during the pandemic: the agency's prior interpretation precluded the neediest families already receiving the maximum benefit level from obtaining any emergency allotments. The new interpretation is also consistent with Congress's decision to increase the amount of money appropriated for SNAP benefits. The initial appropriation in March 2020 was insufficient to provide emergency allotments that brought families above the applicable monthly allotment. See Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (“CARES”) Act, PL 116-136, 134 Stat. 281 (March 27, 2020). But in January 2021, Congress roughly doubled the size of the All SNAP state agencies appropriation for SNAP benefits overall and separately funded a 15 percent increase to the standard monthly SNAP benefit. See Division A of Title IV and Section 702 of Title VII, Subtitle A, Chapter 1 the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2021. While an increased appropriation was necessary to cover (1) the Secretary's upward revision of the cost of the thrifty food plan for fiscal year 2021 and (2) a substantial increase in SNAP enrollment during the pandemic, Congress did not place any limitations on the use of this appropriation for emergency allotments, nor did Congress put it in a Contingency Fund for emergency use only. As a result, the initial appropriation in March 2020 should not operate as an inflexible constraint categorically barring any emergency allotments that would bring a family above the monthly maximum going forward.
Subject to the cap on the amount of the emergency allotments, Section 2302(a) gives USDA broad discretion to determine the appropriate amount of allotments. Unlike standard monthly benefits, the statute does not set a statutory formula for determining the amount of emergency benefits. Compare 7 USC 2017. Nor does the statute grant states the ability on their own to set differing amounts on a state-by-state basis. Rather, once a state justifies the provision of emergency allotments to the states' eligible residents by providing the requisite data, it is up to USDA to determine the amount of the emergency allotment in light of all relevant factors, including its assessment of temporary food needs, budget constraints, limits on accessing accurate income and employment data on a month-to-month basis during the pandemic, and the optimal allocation of scarce resources.
USDA has considered the relevant factors and believes that providing supplemental emergency allotments to the lowest-income households is appropriate. Similar to USDA's role in estimating the thrifty food plan cost, USDA plays a central role in estimating the maximum amount of “temporary food needs” that a typical household may experience in the present circumstances and that the emergency allotments are meant to address. One year into the pandemic, USDA now believes that pandemic-related temporary food needs are unique and that the pandemic requires a unique response different from short-term relief disaster programs. As such, the agency has estimated that the current pandemic-related temporary food needs experienced by a typical household will be addressed by an additional benefit on top of the household's standard monthly allotment. The Thrifty Food Plan was not intended for circumstances occasioned by a pandemic, which imposes additional limitations as to where households can shop safely and the variety of foods available to them. Providing additional EA benefits to the poorest households provides a buffer against these restrictions and potential food price inflation, which is important for households with the least discretionary resources to deal with such circumstances.
Furthermore, USDA has determined that generally allowing households to receive enhanced emergency allotments will best address pandemic-related temporary food needs while taking into account scarce resources and fiscal constraints. USDA recognizes that regular SNAP allotments remain a vital baseline of food assistance to households during the pandemic, and the foregoing guidance seeks to ensure that enhanced emergency allotments will not deplete the available appropriation so as to trigger reductions to regular SNAP allotments under 7 USC 2027.1 USDA considered various factors in determining an appropriate amount of emergency allotments that would not trigger benefit reduction or decrease the amount of emergency allotments households already receive under the previous guidance. In calculating this amount for purposes of its new guidance, USDA took into account household characteristics, estimates of households currently at the maximum benefit or close to the maximum benefit and estimated number of benefit months, and the amount of appropriations available at this time. Based on this information USDA calculated the appropriate EA benefit levels. Thus, USDA will not permit emergency allotments in excess of available funding.
The discussion above provides further context for the adjustment to EA guidance that will issue on April 1, 2021. I hope this information is helpful background for you.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
1 The benefit-reduction mechanism in 7 USC § 2027(b) & (c) applies only to standard monthly “allotments,” not “emergency allotments” under Section 2302(a). Section 2027 long predated Section 2302(a), and the requirement that benefit reductions reflect “household income,” 7 USC § 2027(c), does not apply to emergency allotments distributed during a pandemic that Congress anticipated would result in disruption to “application and reporting requirements,” such as those concerning household income. See Families First Act § 2302(a)(2).