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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.”

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10 Steps to Take to Try to Prevent Your Own Eviction

If you have a mortgage and can’t afford to pay it because of fallout from the coronavirus, you may be able to push off your payments for several months, or even into next year. But if you’re struggling to pay your rent, your options are probably much more limited.

Local, state and federal governments have laid out a patchwork of programs to pause certain eviction proceedings, but some of those have already expired — and one eviction protection component set out in the CARES Act is scheduled to expire by July 25.

Without continued regional action or new help from Congress, a spike in evictions may soon be upon us. The Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project in Denver estimates that between 19 million and 23 million — one in five of the 110 million Americans who live in rental housing — are at risk of eviction by the end of September.

But as harrowing as eviction is, it’s a process that plays out over weeks, at a minimum. And at nearly every point along the way, it may be possible to stop it.

Most people who have never experienced eviction aren’t aware of their local rules, which can be complex and differ widely from place to place. And then there’s the tangle of stopgap federal efforts that may be extended or resurrected over the course of the crisis.

If you’re having trouble paying your rent, your situation might feel hopeless. It may not be — and experts have these suggestions for what to know and what to do.

If you’ve lost your job or part of your income, your instinct may be to avoid your landlord. But it’s probably better to make contact and explain what’s going on.

“In a couple of groups I’ve been part of where landlords have been present, they’ve complained that they’ve reached out to tenants and aren’t getting responses,” said Abigail Staudt, managing attorney of the housing practice at the Legal Aid Society of Cleveland. “Many of them — not all — are compassionate and are ready and willing to work with tenants.”

If you’re going to pay late, not pay in full or pay nothing, landlords will find that out soon enough anyway, she added. Being upfront might pay off later.

Often, tenants receive that first notice from a landlord, assume that there is no fixing the problem, and decide that they should pack up and move. “People often confuse the first step in the process with the last step,” said Zach Neumann, founder of the Covid-19 Eviction Defense Project.

In fact, in most areas, you don’t have to move until there has been some sort of legal finding against you and an officer of the law arrives to carry out any order of eviction. That means there may be time for you to figure out a solution that doesn’t require you to move at all.

You probably do not have the right to a lawyer if a landlord brings an eviction action against you (although there are a few notable exceptions, like in San Francisco and for some families in Cleveland). But you can retain one anyway, and possibly for little cost.

Contacting your local Legal Aid office is a good start. An organization called Just Shelter also has a nationwide map on its website with links to other local organizations that may be able to help.

Merely retaining a lawyer may make landlords more likely to negotiate. That’s because it could signal that their own legal fees are about to go up. A number of reports have pointed to improved (or at least non-worst-case-scenario) outcomes for tenants who have counsel.

Even if you’re not able to fend off eviction, Ms. Staudt said, a lawyer may be able to negotiate more time for you to find a new place.

The company or person tacking notices to your door does not inspire much sympathy. Still, landlords have to pay utilities, taxes, maintenance and insurance, too.

And this is one of the few areas of consumer life where you alone may be the source of a significant percentage of someone else’s income.

It might help in any communication to acknowledge this. Small-scale landlords own more than half the housing stock that rents for less than $750 per month, noted Whitney Airgood-Obrycki, research associate at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. If they go into foreclosure or have to sell, even less sympathetic owners might replace them.

“If we lose them, we risk losing a big source of affordable housing,” she said. Perhaps if you acknowledge your own landlord’s contribution in this way (and your desire to keep landlords solvent, if your own seems to be in jeopardy), you could get a more sympathetic ear.

You do not get what you do not ask for. So talk to your landlord. There are different ways to reduce your costs: waiving rent, reducing rent or using a security deposit in lieu of your payment.

A survey by Apartment List, the real estate listing site, found a bit of decent news. As of June, 39 percent of people not paying rent in full reported that their landlord had made some kind of concession. That figure had fallen from 45 percent in April, but it’s still worth asking for new terms.

Depending where you live and the details of the mortgage for the property you occupy, you might be protected from eviction, at least for now. Some landlords who have themselves put their mortgages into forbearance cannot evict tenants while they’re also skipping payments.

A database of addresses that the National Low Income Housing Coalition created may help some renters figure out if their landlord must comply with the various federal rules. This is another area where a lawyer can help, since the rules can be complicated and some landlords don’t know them — or ignore them.

Some state and local officials have put their own eviction restrictions into place. These efforts are listed on the websites for Eviction Lab and Regional Housing Legal Services.

Emily Benfer, a law professor at Wake Forest School of Law, has also assembled a large amount of helpful information on local actions, with the help of many law and public health students. It’s collected in a publicly available Google spreadsheet.

Rental assistance programs exist, although high demand has depleted some of them.

Still, it’s worth seeking the help out if you need it. The National Low Income Housing Coalition maintains a list of programs on its website.

Also, keep checking back. Any new federal relief bill could provide additional money.

Things may not go your way. The Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond, a founder of both Just Shelter and Eviction Lab, saw it happen while researching his book “Evicted.”

He suggested a couple of tactics. First, make a plan for where you might go if you lose your housing. Ask family and friends for help well ahead of time.

Then stay in your current home as long as you legally can. “You might as well wait for the sheriff to come and force you out,” he said.

Nobody knows what will happen in Washington. Many lawmakers agree that another relief package is necessary, but what it will look like and when it will arrive are anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, tenants should pay as much as they can for as long as they can — and cross their fingers that more help arrives, said Norrinda Brown Hayat, associate clinical professor of law at the Newark campus of Rutgers School of Law.

“Everything is ‘If, then, but,’” she said. “People want to have certainty, but there is none. We just don’t have it yet.”

Jaffe S. Pickett, executive director of Florida Rural Legal Services, said collecting yourself and responding quickly to the threat of eviction isn’t easy, given everything that renters may be up against right now.

“People are coming home from one job, trying to get the kids to Grandma’s,” she said. “With schools and summer programs closed, it all becomes more of a burden.”

This pandemic compounds poverty or causes it outright. If you know someone is in trouble, try to help that person head it off as quickly as possible.

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In the Covid-19 Economy, You Can Have a Kid or a Job. You Can’t Have Both.

Last week, I received an email from my children’s principal, sharing some of the first details about plans to reopen New York City schools this fall. The message explained that the city’s Department of Education, following federal guidelines, will require each student to have 65 square feet of classroom space. Not everyone will be allowed in the building at once. The upshot is that my children will be able to physically attend school one out of every three weeks.

At the same time, many adults — at least the lucky ones that have held onto their jobs — are supposed to be back at work as the economy reopens. What is confusing to me is that these two plans are moving forward apace without any consideration of the working parents who will be ground up in the gears when they collide.

Let me say the quiet part loud: In the Covid-19 economy, you’re allowed only a kid or a job.

Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Why are we not hearing a primal scream so deafening that no plodding policy can be implemented without addressing the people buried by it? Why am I, a food blogger best known for such hits as the All-Butter Really Flaky Pie Dough and The ‘I Want Chocolate Cake’ Cake, sounding the alarm on this? I think it’s because when you’re home schooling all day, and not performing the work you were hired to do until the wee hours of the morning, and do it on repeat for 106 days (not that anyone is counting), you might be a bit too fried to funnel your rage effectively.

For months, I’ve been muttering about this — in group texts, in secret Facebook groups for moms, in masked encounters when I bump into a parent friend on the street. We all ask one another why we aren’t making more noise. The consensus is that everyone agrees this is a catastrophe, but we are too bone-tired to raise our voices above a groan, let alone scream through a megaphone. Every single person confesses burnout, despair, feeling like they are losing their minds, knowing in their guts that this is untenable.

It should be obvious, but a nonnegotiable precondition of “getting back to normal” is that families need a normal to return to as well. But as soon as you express this, the conversation quickly gets clouded with tangential and irrelevant arguments that would get you kicked off any school debate team.

“But we don’t even know if it’s safe to send kids back to school,” is absolutely correct, but it’s not the central issue here. The sadder flip side — the friend who told me that if their school reopens, her children are going back whether it’s safe or not because she cannot afford to not work — edges closer.

“Why do you want teachers to get sick?” isn’t my agenda either, but it’s hard to imagine that a system in which each child will spend two weeks out of every three being handed off among various caretakers only to reconvene in a classroom, infinitely increasing the number of potential virus-carrying interactions, protects a teacher more than a consistent pod of students week in and out with minimized external interactions.

“You shouldn’t have had kids if you can’t take care of them,” is comically troll-like, but has come up so often, one might wonder if you’re supposed to educate your children at night. Or perhaps you should have been paying for some all-age day care backup that sat empty while kids were at school in case the school you were paying taxes to keep open and that requires, by law, that your child attend abruptly closed for the year.

“Why aren’t you enjoying the extra quality time with your kid?” lays bare what is really simmering below the surface — a retrograde view that maybe one parent (they mean the mom) shouldn’t be working, that doing so is bad for children, that it’s selfish to pursue financial gains (or solvency, as working parents will tell you). It is a sentiment so deeply woven into our cultural psyche that making the reasonable suggestion that one shouldn’t have to abandon a career or livelihood if offices reopen before schools, day cares and camps do is viewed as a chance to redeliberate this.

It is not, and you’re off the debate team, too.

I’ve heard from parents who have the luck of a grandparent who can swoop in, or the deep pockets for a full-time nanny or a private tutor for their child when schools are closed. That all sounds enviable, but it would be absurd to let policy be guided by people with cushioning. If you have the privilege to opt out of the work force and wish to, enjoy it. But don’t wield it as a stick to poke others with because far more people are being forced to “opt out” this year and will never professionally or financially recover.

I resent articles that view the struggle of working parents this year as an emotional concern. We are not burned out because life is hard this year. We are burned out because we are being rolled over by the wheels of an economy that has bafflingly declared working parents inessential.

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Credit…Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

For context, let me tell you how the last few months have been for my family. The first few weeks of school and business closures were jaw-clenchingly stressful. I am self-employed and worked full-time from home already, so that part required no transition. But I needed to use this flexibility to ensure that my husband, who would normally have been at his office, didn’t miss a meeting, call or email, while I managed the remote-learning curriculums of our two children, one in pre-K, one in fifth grade. I compensated by working until about 2 a.m. each night.

Three weeks later, our marital work-balance stress evaporated as my husband was put on furlough. He took over home schooling and basically everything else as I became the sole breadwinner, trying to work as hard as I could, at every hour. Last week, he was fully laid off.

Despite our own financial strain, we’ve continued to pay the nanny who used to help shuttle the kids around while we worked, even though she hasn’t worked for us since March. Even if we asked for her help in home schooling our children this fall, who would do so for her school-age children? When will my husband be able to look for work? How can he go back to work if there’s no one to watch the kids?

And I speak from a position of significant privilege. We were, until recently, a two-income family with savings, paying for more than the minimum of child care hours that we needed each day just to cover what-ifs, living in one of the most expensive cities on earth. We have laptops, tablets, Wi-Fi, and didn’t think twice before panic-ordering pencils, paper, markers and anything else we thought might help our children.

But my family, as a social and economic unit, cannot operate forever in the framework authorities envision for the fall. There are so many ways that the situation we’ve been thrust into, in which businesses are planning to reopen without any conversation about the repercussions on families with school-age children, is even more untenable for others.

  • Frequently Asked Questions and Advice

    Updated June 30, 2020

    • 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.

    • Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?

      A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.

    • I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?

      The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.

    • What is pandemic paid leave?

      The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.

    • 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.

    • 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.)

    • 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.


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