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Ending emergency benefits


WORLD Radio - Ending emergency benefits

How the end of the COVID emergency will affect those using SNAP benefit programs

Jaqueline Benitez pushes her cart down an aisle as she shops for groceries at a supermarket in Bellflower, Calif., on Monday, Feb. 13, 2023. AP Photo/Allison Dinner

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It:

Scaling back certain welfare benefits.

The Biden administration announced in January that it will not renew the COVID-19 public health emergency. That means that many of the policies put in place back in 2020 will expire in May.

Some of those emergency policies increased help for families on welfare. How will their situation change?

Well, Angela Rachidi is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and she joins us today to talk about it. Angela, good to have you.

ANGELA RACHIDI, GUEST: Thank you for having me.

BROWN: Congress made a decision in the early days of the pandemic to provide households receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program--of course, that stands for SNAP--with extra benefits or emergency allotments, which can be called EAs. Now, at the end of last month, those EAs ended. And with that came lots of headlines, implying American families will experience hunger and dramatic benefit cuts. So how big are these cuts? And how will they actually affect families?

RACHIDI: Yeah, I think some of the concerns over these cuts, as you call them--I would maybe not characterize them that way--but some of the concerns are somewhat overblown. Just to give a little bit of background on these emergency allotments, as you said, they were implemented in actually the first few weeks of the pandemic. And the reason they were put in place is because policymakers recognized that SNAP households would have difficulty reporting changes to their income to offices. And so what the emergency allotments did is it just gave everybody the maximum, recognizing that people would not be going into an office, physically going into an office, and that many households would likely face unemployment because of the pandemic. So that was the original purpose. And you know, three years into the pandemic, obviously that is not or was not the situation that households were experiencing. So it was entirely appropriate to end those emergency allotments.

BROWN: Now, Angela, I did mention in my introduction to that first question, I used the word 'cuts.' And you said you would not use that terminology. Why wouldn't you? And why is that important that we make that distinction?

RACHIDI: Well, I think the kind of using the term cut does suggest that this is something that is trying to save money or something where households are getting below the benefits that they are due, when in fact, I think any emergency measure once it serves its purpose, it should be ended. So benefits rather than being cut, they actually have been increased quite dramatically over the past few years. And so I think it's a little bit misleading to try to suggest that ending an emergency program is actually a benefit cut.

BROWN: Noted. What about work requirements for people receiving SNAP benefits? Will these be reinstated when the COVID-19 public emergency ends?

RACHIDI: Yes, so SNAP has a very kind of narrowly focused or limited work requirement. It only applies to what we call able-bodied adults without dependents, which basically just means individuals who are not disabled who are aged 18 to 49. So kind of prime age people, and they don't have children in the household. But when that law went into place in the 1990s, there were exceptions that states could apply for. And the idea was that when the economy was not performing, when it was, you know, jobs, were hard to find that those SNAP recipients should not be subject to a work requirement. But again, we're three years in, economic conditions improved quite dramatically after the first, you know, few months, several months of the pandemic, to the point where there was actually a labor shortage. And so states will have the ability to impose that work requirement again, assuming the economic conditions meet the need to do that. And that is a change, because that has been waived throughout this entire time because of the public health emergency.

BROWN: And what about Medicaid? How will that be impacted?

RACHIDI: Well, there were a few things that happened with Medicaid, but I would say the biggest one was that eligibility for Medicaid continued throughout the pandemic. Typically, in all of these safety net programs, people have to, we call it recertify, or kind of get their benefits reauthorized based on changing circumstances within the household. What happened during the pandemic is for Medicaid, there was a provision put in place that households receiving Medicaid did not have to recertify. So households who are receiving Medicaid have basically been receiving it this entire time, even if circumstances changed in their household that made them no longer eligible for Medicaid. So what is happening now with the end of the public health emergency is that states will need to go in and reevaluate all of those households and ensure that they are still eligible for Medicaid.

BROWN: I wonder, should we characterize ending these benefits as uncompassionate?

RACHIDI: I would not use that term at all, actually, I mean, we do not have a safety net in this country that's universal, meaning that government benefits are available to everybody. The safety net in our country is just that a safety net. It's based on an assessment of people's needs. And so it's in my mind compassionate and perfectly appropriate to ensure that households are receipt that are receiving benefits are eligible within the parameters of the program.

BROWN: Well, Angela Rashidi is senior fellow and Rowe Scholar for the American Enterprise Institute. Angela, thank you for your time today.

RACHIDI: Thanks for having me.

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