In a confusing turn of events stemming from the partial federal government shutdown, food stamps that would normally be disbursed in February were to be given to recipients by about 6 p.m. Wednesday.
That stipulation was announced late Wednesday morning by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, which helps distribute food stamps, allotted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It was a departure from a DHS announcement on Monday that the food stamps (known as SNAP benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) would be disbursed on Friday.
It’s good news that people will be receiving SNAP benefits for February at all, anti-hunger advocates say.
Still, the altered plans may serve to confuse SNAP recipients, who would normally get their February allotments between Feb. 1 and 14, according to advocates.
“We are concerned that people aren’t going to know why the extra money is there, and that they may not be able to budget appropriately,” said Kate Scully, director of government affairs for Philabundance, the region’s largest anti-hunger agency.
People who have accidentally gotten more money than their allotted amount in the past are penalized if they keep the overage, Scully said, adding, “Families know the government comes after them for extra money."
State officials said plans were changed because the money became available sooner than expected.
In New Jersey, February benefits were expected to be released Thursday.
Further complicating the issue, DHS officials won’t be able to mail letters explaining the altered plan to the state’s 1,783,249 SNAP recipients until Friday, a spokesman said, citing the magnitude of communicating with so many people in a short period of time. This means that SNAP clients will have their money five or more days before being told it’s available.
SNAP benefits are loaded onto recipients' electronic benefits transfer cards, which function like debit cards.
Initially, it appeared the partial shutdown had precluded SNAP payments for February. But federal officials discovered that they had the authority to use funds that had been appropriated before the partial shutdown that started Dec. 22. Those funds had to be distributed within 30 days, according to Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research Action Center, a Washington nonprofit working to eradicate hunger.
“It’s been a very confusing and fluid time,” Vollinger said. But, she added, “it’s very encouraging that the government has found a way to get this distribution done.”
The USDA’s early funding release does not address what will happen with March SNAP benefits if the partial shutdown continues, according to Dottie Rosenbaum, a senior fellow at the nonprofit Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.
“Millions of low-income households ... could have their basic food assistance cut back substantially in March and then eliminated altogether in April if the shutdown continues,” Rosenbaum wrote on the center’s website.
The partial shutdown already has prompted phone calls from puzzled SNAP recipients, noted Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger.
“It’s unbelievable that 50 states have to scramble to make this happen just because Congress and the president are not making sure that government operates properly,” Fisher said. “Will recipients even know they’re dipping into their February money this week?”
The coalition and other advocacy groups are notifying any recipients they encounter that the money coming to them this week is not a bonus or an increase in their monthly payment.
“It’s all confusing to me,” said Mary Deveo, 59, of Nicetown, a single woman with two grown children who lives on disability payments. She gets $189 a month in SNAP benefits.
She said that she fears she’ll run out of food in February because she won’t be able to manage it correctly.
“I have a disability that makes me forget stuff,” Deveo said. “And now I’ll be going back and forth to the market, not knowing what I have. Plus, I’m worried about March and April.”
Deveo is friends with Thelma Kennerly, who runs a food pantry at Devereux Methodist Church in North Philadelphia.
Kennerly said that she and other pantry people believe the early disbursement of SNAP money will cause clients to run out of food in February. “And that means they’ll be relying more heavily on us,” she added. “It’s hard for people to budget, and this early money will make some people panic.”
In Philadelphia, 467,647 people received SNAP benefits in December, state figures show. Throughout the state, the average monthly benefit is $119 per person, figures shows. A person is eligible for SNAP benefits in Pennsylvania with an income of 160 percent of the federal poverty level, or less. This means that a family of three can get benefits if its annual income is around $32,000 or below.
The change in disbursement will affect more than SNAP recipients. Alex Baloga, CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association in Harrisburg, said the early February allotment “will create a lot of logistical issues” for supermarkets.
He said that food-store mangers are aware that customers usually receive SNAP benefits at the beginning of the month. “So, this change will be a challenge,” he said. Store personnel will have to reconfigure their staff and food products to be ready for people when they begin to shop during an altered time frame, Baloga added.