After a gradual but steady decline in the use of food stamp benefits in Iowa over the past two years, enrollment in the federal assistance program jumped this spring with the arrival of coronavirus.
In January, statewide enrollment in SNAP — Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps — was 301,184 — down 8.8 percent from a year earlier, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services. By March, the number of food stamp recipients had fallen to 298,380, or 8 percent below the previous March.
But as the economy shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19 and Iowans were thrown out of work, Human Services saw a sharp increase in food stamp use.
“The numbers through March were typical,” said Jess Benson, a senior fiscal legislative analyst at the Iowa Legislature’s Legislative Services Agency, who works on human services policy.
Iowa’s first COVID-19 case was reported March 8 “and then beginning in April (SNAP enrollment) began to increase significantly,” Benson said.
The number of recipients jumped by nearly 11 percent, or 31,909 in April and another 7,851 to 338,192 in May — 5.6 percent above the previous year.
Now the numbers are beginning to turn around as the economy reopens and Iowans return to work, Benson said. From May to June, enrollment decreased by nearly 9 percent, or 29,787 recipients.
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SNAP is a federally funded program that provides benefits to low-income Iowans to purchase food. To be eligible, a family’s annual household income cannot exceed 160 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s $20,146 for a one-person household and $34,752 for a three-person household.
The average benefit is $227 per month per household or $109 per month per individual, according to a mid-July report by the Legislative Services Agency on the budget implications of COVID-19. Human Services does not keep statistics on how long a recipient receives food stamps, but according to a federal report it averages eight to 10 months.
The decrease in food stamp numbers beginning in May parallels the trend in unemployment claims. Iowa Workforce Development reported Iowans filed 7,441 new claims between July 19 and 25, a decrease of 1,370 over the previous week. Continuing claims fell by 4,970 to 110,960 — the lowest since April 4.
According to Iowa Workforce Development, 131,200 Iowans were unemployed in June, down from 173,000 in May, but still up 84,000 — nearly triple — from June 2019.
For a number of reasons, it may be too soon to know if the latest downward trends in SNAP enrollment and unemployment will hold.
For one, the number of SNAP participants doesn’t include out-of-work Iowans who had qualified for the $600-a-week federal supplemental unemployment benefit. The benefit counts as income in determining eligibility.
However, those benefits have expired and Congress hasn’t taken action on an extension. The House proposed a 15 percent increase SNAP benefits but the Senate is offering no new funding.
So many of those unemployed workers who previously did not qualify for food stamps could become eligible if the aid is not extended or even if there is a gap in the program.
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Despite the increased participation, SNAP isn’t filling everyone’s plate. Food bank demand has soared in the pandemic.
HACAP Food Reservoir in Hiawatha, for example, said that last year it delivered 9 million tons of food to individuals and partner organizations in its seven-county service area. This year, it is on track to deliver 12 tons of food based as demand that has grown from 750,000 tons to 1 million tons per month.
According to the Child & Family Policy Center in Des Moines, about 134,000 Iowa households, including 98,000 children, report not having enough food to eat.
And while SNAP use has been declining since the economy started to reopen in May, the latest economic numbers showed the nation’s gross domestic product fell by an annual rate of nearly 33 percent, signaling a longer, slower recovery than forecast.
Economists say the economy can’t fully recover until the pandemic is defeated, but the number of COVID-19 cases in Iowa continue to rise, approaching nearly 44,000 in less than six months.
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