FoodStamps

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Louisiana families who rely on food stamps can expect their benefits a little ahead of schedule next month, as the state attempts to address a gap that was created by the recent federal government shutdown.

The Department of Children and Family Services, which oversees the federally-funded food stamp program in Louisiana, announced that everyone on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly called food stamps, can expect to receive their benefits by March 2.

February SNAP benefits were issued in mid-January under a deal the federal government hashed out to fund the program despite the federal government shutdown that stretched from Dec. 22 to Jan. 25 — the nation’s longest ever recorded.

"This extended period between SNAP issuances has been challenging for SNAP recipients, about 66 percent of whom are elderly, disabled or children," DCFS Secretary Marketa Garner Walters said.

Without the schedule change, some families would have gone 57 days between issuance, according to DCFS.

Nearly 1 in 5 people in Louisiana receives food stamps — more than 850,000 people each year, many of them families with children.

DCFS’s altered timeline is meant to address concerns that, while benefits had been paid out, some families could still struggle when faced with a 50-plus interval between benefits, rather than the average 30-day cycle they are used to.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds the food stamps program, came up with the early issuance timeline in an attempt to prevent a gap in the monetary value of benefits.

"Our motto here at the USDA has been 'Do Right and Feed Everyone.' With this solution, we've got the 'Feed Everyone' part handled,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue told reporters on a Jan. 8 conference call. “I believe that the plan we've constructed takes care of the 'Do Right' part as well."

But the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, a national group that advocates on behalf of low-income individuals, reported this week that the looming gap could “cause some households whose budgets already are extremely tight to face heightened difficulties affording food as they await their March benefits.”

“It’s well documented that SNAP benefits normally run out for most households before the end of the month,” CBPP reported in its analysis of the potential impact on families.

SNAP benefits are distributed based on several calculations but the biggest factors are household income and family size. In Louisiana, a single person whose net income is $1,012 or less each month would qualify for up to $192 in food stamps each month. A family of four with a net monthly income of up to $2,092 could get up to $642 a month.

When benefits were issued early, state leaders cautioned that families would need to hold onto their benefits as long as possible to cover the gap.

“That is not an additional benefit," Gov. John Bel Edwards said last month. "That benefit you get is going to have to carry you all the way through the month of February.”

As the program’s name states, SNAP is supposed to supplement a family’s food budget, though. Benefits are calculated based on a family’s ability to put 30 percent of its available cash income toward food. Based on CBPP’s analysis, that complicates some recipients' ability to stretch the benefits over a longer period.

“Many households spend their SNAP benefits quickly because they can only be spent on food,” CBPP's report notes. “Cash income from other sources is needed to pay for other expenses, such as rent or mortgage, utilities, essential non-food items, clothing, gasoline and car repairs. As a result, families use their SNAP benefits first to make food purchases, saving cash for other needed expenses.”

According to DCFS, Louisiana recipients who usually receive SNAP benefits between the 1st and 4th of each month (days set aside for SNAP households classified as elderly and disabled) will receive their benefits on March 1. Recipients who usually get SNAP benefits between the 5th and 14th of the month will receive their benefits on March 2.

March benefits will not be disrupted if there is another federal government shutdown, according to DCFS. President Donald Trump has remained at an impasse with congressional leaders over funding for a wall along the Mexican border. Another government shutdown could happen if an agreement isn't reached by midnight Friday.

Trump told reporters Tuesday that he's hoping that won't happen.

"I don’t think you're going to see a shutdown," he said. " I wouldn’t want to go to it, no."


Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.