Posted on

Are You Eligible for Food Stamps Now? Maybe, but It’s Complex

The safety net is starting to unravel.

At the end of the month, struggling Americans could lose the extra $600 per week they’ve been receiving in unemployment insurance. Some eviction protections are already expiring.

And as people scramble to afford basic needs, hunger looms.

Tens of millions of Americans are in danger. According to Census Bureau Pulse Survey data released this week, 10.8 percent of American adults are experiencing some level of food insecurity. Louisiana, Nevada and Ohio had the highest rates: 17 to 18 percent. Food lines have been a feature of newspaper front pages and home pages for months now.

And yet there is a program that may be able to help millions of struggling Americans. One that was underused even before the coronavirus crisis: food stamps, or as they are known in most places now, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Policy experts and social services administrators are hoping that everyone whose income has gone to zero or close to it will at least ask. “If you’ve never accessed these benefits before, it may be because of the way that SNAP in particular has been portrayed or vilified,” said Carlos M. Rodriguez, president and chief executive of the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, which helps people sign up for SNAP. “People do not understand that this program is here for them at this exact time.”

SNAP is overseen by the Department of Agriculture, which lays out the rules. States handle applications and administration, and they have some leeway with the federal regulations. (And with the terms: Missouri still uses the older “food stamp” phrasing.)

As a result, it’s possible to offer some general guidelines for understanding how the program works, but your state has the final word. The rules are numerous and complicated, but there are exceptions and waivers that might apply to you — so don’t be deterred.

In the 2018 fiscal year, 39.7 million people qualified in an average month. To do so, they usually had to pass both income tests and asset tests, though households with elderly or disabled people may face less strict rules.

In most places, someone living alone can have a gross monthly income of no more than $1,354 and a net income of $1,041. For a family of four, the gross income limit is $2,790 while the net income limit is $2,146. The Food and Nutrition Service of the Department of Agriculture lists these limits and many other rules on its website via a SNAP frequently asked questions page.

Net income figures account for deductions that the program allows. Those deductions include allowances for earnings (to encourage work), dependent care, certain medical expenses and unusually large housing costs. Applicants generally have to provide documentation.

Money you receive from unemployment payments may reduce or eliminate your SNAP eligibility. Still, if unemployment is your only income and you have few assets, it’s worth applying for SNAP to see if you qualify.

The cap on assets is $2,250, or $3,500 if a household has someone 60 or older or someone with a disability. Homes and most retirement plan balances don’t count. Vehicles can count, though states have leeway to set those rules.

Yes, two of them.

First, if you’re between the ages of 16 and 59, you’re supposed to enroll in relevant state training programs, accept suitable offers of employment and not quit voluntarily or choose to work less than 30 hours per week. But there are exceptions, including for people caring for children under 6 years old or incapacitated adults, and those who have a physical or mental limitation or are participating regularly in a drug or alcohol treatment program.

There’s another set of rules for people between the ages of 18 and 49 who are both able bodied and have no dependents, including working or participating in a work program at least 80 hours per month. You can read more about them on the Department of Agriculture’s website.

Waivers sometimes apply to work rules as well, which is why it’s important to apply for SNAP if you’re not sure how your own work situation applies, instead of just assuming that you’re ineligible.

You apply through your state. The Department of Agriculture has a map-based directory on its website, and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has collected additional state-by-state information.

For people with no internet access, SNAP’s phone number is 1-800-221-5689. There or via the 211 phone service in many areas, you can likely find a state program’s phone number.

Most states have online applications and calculators that screen for eligibility. The application process usually includes an interview, which can often happen over the phone. The process is supposed to take no more than 30 days, and it could take less than a week if your income or assets are particularly low.

To gain access to benefits, you’ll use an electronic benefit transfer card that works like a debit card in grocery stores. You’ll need to be ready to recertify eligibility from time to time, which can be a major obstacle for struggling individuals who may also be trying to navigate uncertain unemployment schedules or commute without a reliable vehicle.

“A lot of people roll off at that point,” said Pamela Herd, a Georgetown University professor and an expert on the “administrative burdens” that keep otherwise eligible people from getting access to many public programs.

People who have less get more, but there are limits and they depend on your family size.

The maximum monthly allotment for a one-person household is $194. For a family of four, the cap is $646. Cost-of-living adjustments may change those amounts in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and the Virgin Islands.

Sometimes, yes. A 2018 Government Accountability Office report found that 57 percent of low-income students who seemed potentially eligible for SNAP (and had at least one other additional factor that suggested they were food insecure) did not report receiving SNAP benefits. That was about 1.8 million people.

Moreover, investigators found that state SNAP employees and some federal officials admitted confusion about student eligibility rules.

SNAP rules generally keep students whose parents are supporting them (or those on a meal plan) from getting benefits. Others who have little income or assets should consult the Agriculture Department’s bare-bones guidance and inquire further with their state if they think they might qualify. The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University has a guide for colleges and universities that want to help students.

It depends. If you’re receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits, you should definitely apply for SNAP. In many instances, someone from a Social Security office may be able to help.

Some people receiving Social Security retirement benefits may be eligible for SNAP, too, but as of 2015, fewer than half of eligible older Americans were receiving benefits. The Department of Agriculture has a separate section of its website laying out the different eligibility rules for elderly and disabled people.

Carrie R. Welton, director of policy at the Hope Center, a research and advocacy group, said your first stop should still be the state agency that determines eligibility. Caseworkers can be both helpful and empathetic: Ms. Welton recalled her own time on public assistance, when the person on the other side of the desk started to cry when she realized that Ms. Welton would need to stop attending college full time if she hoped to maintain her benefits.

Other organizations may be able to help. Part of Ms. Welton’s work involves translating federal and state policy to help students who may be eligible for SNAP and other benefits. College financial aid offices may be able to assist students, too.

Help may also be available at your local food bank (several hundred colleges and universities have food banks as well). You can find a food bank near you using the ZIP code tool on Feeding America’s website.

“We’re pursuing the initiative to feed the people in the lines but help shorten them as well,” said Mr. Rodriguez, the Community FoodBank of New Jersey president. “SNAP puts dollars in people’s hands to shop the way you and I do.”

Read More

Posted on

As Meat Plants Stayed Open to Feed Americans, Exports to China Surged

Smithfield Foods was the first company to warn in April that the coronavirus pandemic was pushing the United States “perilously close to the edge in terms of our meat supply.” Tyson Foods also sounded the alarm, saying that “millions of pounds of meat will disappear” from the nation’s supply chain as plants were being forced to close because of outbreaks.

That same month, Smithfield sent China 9,170 tons of pork, one of its highest monthly export totals to that market in the past three years. Tyson exported 1,289 tons of pork to China, the most since January 2017.

In all, a record amount of the pork produced in the United States — 129,000 tons — was exported to China in April.

The data compiled by Panjiva, the supply chain research unit of S&P Global Market Intelligence, and the Department of Agriculture is potentially embarrassing for an industry that trumpeted its role in feeding the American public to argue to keep plants operating during the pandemic. Although some meat companies say much of their exported pork was produced before the outbreak, even previously processed meat could have stocked shelves in April and May.

After slaughterhouses in several states were closed when thousands of workers tested positive and dozens died, the industry publicly lobbied the Trump administration to intervene with state and local officials or risk major meat shortages across American grocery stores. Indeed, some retailers put limits on the amount of meat customers could buy, and the fast-food chain Wendy’s, at one point, ran low on hamburger.

But the meatpackers, including Smithfield, which China’s largest pork producer bought in 2013, did not emphasize, at least not publicly, that keeping the plants open would also protect their long-term investments in exporting to a country that is vital to their growth.

Analysts say the meat shortages have subsided, with most plants having reopened, though many are still operating at slower speeds. As some meat companies continue to test their workers, they are still discovering positive cases. So far, 25,523 meatpacking workers have tested positive and 89 have died, according to the Food & Environment Reporting Network, which has been tracking the outbreak.

After decades of relatively stagnant pork consumption in the United States and a recent thaw in the trade war with China, this was the year that the pork exports were set to take off.

“The meat companies were saying the sky was falling, and it really wasn’t,” said Tony Corbo, a senior lobbyist at Food & Water Watch, a consumer and environmental watchdog group. “It wasn’t that there was not enough supply. It was that the supply was being sent abroad.”

The industry stands by its warnings about shortages and the need to keep the plants operating.

“As long as our nation’s harvest facilities continue to operate, not only do we have enough meat to feed Americans, but also to feed the world,” Smithfield said in a statement.

Smithfield said the meat it exported in April “was actually ordered and processed in the months prior to Covid-19.”

The company added that “much of what is exported are items that attract little or no interest from domestic consumers,” such as the pigs’ feet, snouts and tails, and that exports had declined as production slowed amid the pandemic.

Tyson said pork exports to China had amounted to about 3 percent of its total production since October. “In recent months, we’ve prioritized supplying meat to the U.S. domestic market and have voluntarily curtailed shipping those pork export items that are also used by domestic consumers to try to meet U.S. demand,” the company added.

Image
Credit…Daniel Acker for The New York Times

Before the pandemic took hold, the U.S. pork industry had been undergoing a major expansion. Large new slaughterhouses across the Midwest contributed to a 12 percent increase in pork processing between 2017 and 2019, federal government figures show. Farmers also enlarged their herds and even invested in building giant packing plants to process their pigs.

In 2017, a venture involving five large Midwestern pig farmers built a nearly one-million-square-foot, $335 million pork plant in Sioux City, Iowa, which started processing three million pigs a year. A year later, the company, Seaboard Triumph, added a second shift, doubling its annual output to six million pigs. To fully staff the plant, Seaboard Triumph recruited workers from as far as Micronesia.

All of this expansion was taking place even though pork consumption in the United States has stayed relatively flat since the early 1980s. China, which consumes half the world’s pork, has long loomed as a big opportunity for American meat companies.

“We are talking record pork production last year and the year before that,” said Dennis Smith, a livestock analyst at Archer Financial Services. “The producers need exports.”

When China’s largest pork producer, W.H. Group, bought Smithfield, critics worried that the deal gave a Chinese company too much control over the American pork supply.

Some U.S. officials wanted to block the deal with W.H. But the $4.7 billion deal eventually went through.

Image

Credit…Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Until recently, China had been largely self-sufficient in pork. That changed after African swine fever started decimating its pig population in 2018.

The trade war between the United States and China slowed pork exports. But by this winter, many of the tariffs had been reduced, and the American industry’s big bet on exports “started looking really smart,” Mr. Smith said.

The pork that is sent to China is often more profitable. In some cases, Chinese buyers import large portions of the pig carcasses, which require less labor to process and result in a higher margin for the meatpackers.

China had also started to shape how American pigs are raised. Recently, large producers like Tyson said they would no longer process pigs that were fed ractopamine, a feed additive that allows them to gain muscle while eating less grain. Most pigs in the United States had been raised on the drug, but China bans it.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 12, 2020

    • Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?

      So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.

    • What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?

      Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.

    • How does blood type influence coronavirus?

      A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.

    • How many people have lost their jobs due to coronavirus in the U.S.?

      The unemployment rate fell to 13.3 percent in May, the Labor Department said on June 5, an unexpected improvement in the nation’s job market as hiring rebounded faster than economists expected. Economists had forecast the unemployment rate to increase to as much as 20 percent, after it hit 14.7 percent in April, which was the highest since the government began keeping official statistics after World War II. But the unemployment rate dipped instead, with employers adding 2.5 million jobs, after more than 20 million jobs were lost in April.

    • Will protests set off a second viral wave of coronavirus?

      Mass protests against police brutality that have brought thousands of people onto the streets in cities across America are raising the specter of new coronavirus outbreaks, prompting political leaders, physicians and public health experts to warn that the crowds could cause a surge in cases. While many political leaders affirmed the right of protesters to express themselves, they urged the demonstrators to wear face masks and maintain social distancing, both to protect themselves and to prevent further community spread of the virus. Some infectious disease experts were reassured by the fact that the protests were held outdoors, saying the open air settings could mitigate the risk of transmission.

    • How do we start exercising again without hurting ourselves after months of lockdown?

      Exercise researchers and physicians have some blunt advice for those of us aiming to return to regular exercise now: Start slowly and then rev up your workouts, also slowly. American adults tended to be about 12 percent less active after the stay-at-home mandates began in March than they were in January. But there are steps you can take to ease your way back into regular exercise safely. First, “start at no more than 50 percent of the exercise you were doing before Covid,” says Dr. Monica Rho, the chief of musculoskeletal medicine at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Thread in some preparatory squats, too, she advises. “When you haven’t been exercising, you lose muscle mass.” Expect some muscle twinges after these preliminary, post-lockdown sessions, especially a day or two later. But sudden or increasing pain during exercise is a clarion call to stop and return home.

    • My state is reopening. Is it safe to go out?

      States are reopening bit by bit. This means that more public spaces are available for use and more and more businesses are being allowed to open again. The federal government is largely leaving the decision up to states, and some state leaders are leaving the decision up to local authorities. Even if you aren’t being told to stay at home, it’s still a good idea to limit trips outside and your interaction with other people.

    • What are the symptoms of coronavirus?

      Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.

    • How can I protect myself while flying?

      If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)

    • Should I wear a mask?

      The C.D.C. has recommended that all Americans wear cloth masks if they go out in public. This is a shift in federal guidance reflecting new concerns that the coronavirus is being spread by infected people who have no symptoms. Until now, the C.D.C., like the W.H.O., has advised that ordinary people don’t need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. Part of the reason was to preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers who desperately need them at a time when they are in continuously short supply. Masks don’t replace hand washing and social distancing.

    • What should I do if I feel sick?

      If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.


fbpx