A federal program to assuage the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic has thus far prevented a surge in Pennsylvanians seeking state benefits, but officials believe that surge is on the horizon.
Department of Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller said during a press conference Wednesday it is typical to see a delay between an economic recession and a sharp increase in people seeking benefits, such as through Medicaid, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). DHS saw a 4.9% increase in Medicaid enrollment and a 9.7% increase in SNAP enrollment over the course of the pandemic. She anticipates a surge in applications later in the summer as federal benefits come to an end.
“People are not, perhaps, feeling the impact as much as they will shortly,” she said.
The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES) provided benefits including stimulus checks and an additional $600 per week in unemployment benefits. The additional unemployment funding will stop at the end of July, and Miller said many people have been unable to find a job.
“We’re not through this pandemic, and we also have the economic downturn, which is going to make it very difficult for people to get back on their feet and maybe get that job that they’re looking for,” she said.
Waivers are also set to expire, and officials are seeking longer extensions to allow for planning and to ensure that applicants can receive assistance without putting their health at risk.
Gov. Tom Wolf sent a letter to U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue Wednesday, asking that waivers be extended for longer than 30 days. Those waivers include eliminating face-to-face interviews, extending the timeframe for disqualification hearings and temporarily suspending collections for overpayment. Extensions were granted for 30 days and are set to expire July 31. Wolf is requesting a 90-day extension.
“We are grateful that USDA has extended some of our waivers until the end of July, but the general uncertainty is very difficult to plan and communicate to our caseworkers and for our clients,” Wolf said. “States are working tirelessly to manage COVID-19 and eliminate localized outbreaks, and as the administrators of SNAP and similar programs in our states, we are best positioned to understand what flexibilities are necessary to meet current needs and keep staff and clients safe.”
Miller emphasized the importance of SNAP, and said proper nutrition has lifelong impacts, such as high school graduation rates, hospitalizations and chronic medical conditions.
“The monthly benefit isn’t huge. It’s usually $243 per month for a family of two, but to people who receive this, it makes all the difference,” she said.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control shows that communities of color are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Likewise, enrollment in state programs is significantly higher among Black people. Twelve percent of Pennsylvanians are Black, but account for 25% of those enrolled in Medicaid, 29% enrolled in SNAP, and 53% of those who seek Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. She said the pandemic and economic crisis could deepen this economic divide.
“We cannot risk health or long-term security for people already in a vulnerable position,” she said.
Miller said the federal government wants to return to “business as usual.”
“The federal government just wants to get back to normal faster, I think, than we’re going to be able to do safely,” she said.
People continue to experience economic hardship while facing the loss of temporary federal benefits, while some states are seeing a surge in COVID-19 cases.
“COVID-19 is not eradicated. We do not have a vaccine. We do not know how to treat this virus,” she said.