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230,000 Texas Families Filed For SNAP Food Assistance In March, Twice As Many As March Last Year

Volunteers from neighboring small towns divide, package and load their trucks with food from the Amarillo-based High Plains Food Bank for monthly delivery to Quitaque.
Callie Richmond for The Texas Tribune
Volunteers from neighboring small towns divide, package and load their trucks with food from the Amarillo-based High Plains Food Bank for monthly delivery to Quitaque.

The number of Texas families that applied for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program doubled in March compared with the same period last year, as thousands of Texans lost their jobs and incomes because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In March, Texas received 230,809 applications for the food assistance program, up from 114,008 during the same month last year, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

April application numbers, which will be released next month, are expected to be more representative of how many Texas families need SNAP since measures to simplify the application — like taking away paystub, work and interview requirements — didn’t go into effect until the end of March, said Rachel Cooper, a senior policy analyst with the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. She said Texas’s response is lagging behind that of other large states.

"Part of it is our size, part of it is our policies and our staffing issues. But we are definitely tending to be slower to implement [changes] than other large states,” Cooper said.

Texas has implemented some changes to SNAP in response to the pandemic, including automatically allocating the maximum SNAP benefits based on family size, allowing automatic reenrollment in the program for six months and waiving the interview requirement of the application for those who verify their identity, according to Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

Before changes to the application were made, Katie Emden, who was laid off from her job at an Austin airport restaurant because of the pandemic, said the 30-page application required her last few paystubs and a letter from her boss saying her layoff was related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Applying for unemployment was a lot easier than getting food stamps,” Emden said.

The SNAP paperwork took her two hours to get through, and she spent another two hours on the phone trying to get additional paperwork to upload on the online portal, Emden said.

“During this difficult time, we’re making sure Texans in need continue to receive their food and medical benefits without the added worry of having to renew their coverage in the midst of a crisis,” said Wayne Salter, HHS deputy executive commissioner for access and eligibility services, in a statement.

But the state hasn’t changed who is eligible for the food assistance program. Even if someone has no income or it has significantly reduced, they could be denied benefits because of asset limits. For example, owning a car valued at more than $15,000 can disqualify a person from the program. This change is fully within the state’s control, Cooper said.

“What we’re trying to make sure is that the state gets out of the way as much as possible by streamlining their processes and rules and getting rid of the barriers we have chosen, for the most part, in Texas to make it hard to apply for many of these programs because of many of our own attitudes about these programs,” Cooper said.

In March, Gov. Greg Abbott sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Agriculture requesting that SNAP recipients be allowed to use their benefits at takeout and drive-thru restaurants. The USDA has yet to announce a decision on Abbott’s request.

"As we continue in our efforts to combat COVID-19, the state must do everything it can to make life more manageable for citizens and ensure that Texans can provide meals for their families," Abbott said.

Disclosure: The Center for Public Policy Priorities has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

The Texas Tribune provided this story.