The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most widely used assistance program of its type for families and individuals who need food. Over 860,000 Massachusetts residents received an average $123 per month in SNAP benefits during FY2014, contributing about $1.27 billion to the State’s food economy, and enabling residents in getting more of the food they need.
Yet many SNAP eligible, low-income families and individuals in Massachusetts who qualify for SNAP assistance do not receive the benefits, which increases their risk of food insecurity. While similar income thresholds are used to determine eligibility for SNAP and MassHealth benefits, about 400,000 more people are enrolled in MassHealth than SNAP, suggesting eligible people may be missing out on receiving SNAP benefits.
As an additional enrollment challenge, between January and April, 2014, SNAP participation dropped by 107,000 individuals. This decline was primarily due to an administrative change in the program, intended to improve the processing of SNAP applications and recertifications by State agencies; instead it led to the termination of benefits for large numbers of recipients. During the year that followed, the SNAP household caseload in Massachusetts declined 11.2 percent, compared with a national decline of just 1.7 percent during the same period. The economic impact since January 2014 has meant the loss of more than $156 million, annually in SNAP dollars flowing into the Massachusetts food economy. The Baker Administration, shortly after taking office in 2015, ceased automated terminations, reviewed the situation, and quickly implemented changes. Further reforms are planned to increase the State’s capacity to serve individuals and families in need of SNAP benefits, including the restoration of benefits that were terminated.
In addition, USDA data suggest that available SNAP income deductions are significantly underutilized, which also results in people not receiving benefits. Only 12 percent of SNAP households nationally with a member age 60-plus or person with disabilities claimed out-of-pocket medical expenses against their income, as allowed. There is a similar underuse of child care deductions by working families with pre-school and school age children. Child care expenses can help a family qualify for SNAP – especially if household income is between 130 percent and 200 percent federal poverty level.
Finally, a person’s receipt of SNAP benefits is a trigger for other food-related assistance programs, such as automatic eligibility for meals through the USDA’s National School Lunch and School Breakfast Program. SNAP participation also enhances the ability of a school or school district to qualify for Community Eligibility Provision, the federal universal free school meals program.
The challenges, trends, and merits of the SNAP program all suggest a need for more robust administration, and increased enrollment. In particular it is important that we prioritize ensuring that SNAP – eligible families with children are receiving benefits, as it has been found that with a reduction or absence of this assistance, children are more likely to experience food insecurity, be in poor health, and at risk for developmental delays. Massachusetts has a compelling interest in having everyone who qualifies for SNAP receiving the benefits that are available to them.
Recommendation 2.1: The Massachusetts DTA should continue to restore SNAP benefits to households improperly terminated or denied due to the business process redesign during 2014 and early 2015.
Action 2.1.1: DTA should review the terminations and denials of all SNAP benefits, and where determined eligible, permit or restore benefits as soon as possible. This would not apply in cases where SNAP benefits were terminated because applicant’s income exceeded the eligibility thresholds.
Action 2.1.2: Ensure adequate funding to hire DTA staff for the timely, efficient, and reliable processing of SNAP applications and renewals. The DTA should renew their focus on assisting clients, particularly elders, people with disabilities, and applicants with limited English proficiency, in securing required documentation and verification.
Action 2.1.3: Identify and implement best practices for SNAP administration that have been developed in other States, through research and working with the USDA. In particular, improve the existing Virtual Gateway and Beacon systems, to prevent automatic terminations or denials where submitted documents are not reviewed by DTA staff. Ensure DTA staff is trained to facilitate a streamlined application process.
Action 2.1.4: Implement federal options to reduce SNAP application barriers for low-income, seniors, and elder populations. Pursue an Elder Simplified Application Pilot (ESAP) to eliminate verification and interview requirements for seniors. Expand the Bay State Combined Application pilot to reach low income elder and disabled Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients. Consider allowing community partners to conduct client interviews.
Recommendation 2.2: Implement a common application portal for MassHealth, SNAP and other needs-based programs, that serves as an integrated, streamlined eligibility system for State-administered benefits.
Action 2.2.1: Develop, test, and deploy a common application portal, either as improvement to the existing Virtual Gateway or new system, to enable people to apply for SNAP when applying for or renewing MassHealth membership.
Action 2.2.2: Explore use of a common application portal for other federal and State benefit programs including the National School Breakfast and Lunch Programs; Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC); Income Eligible Child Care; housing assistance benefits; and Cash Assistance benefits to ensure families seeking these benefits are offered simultaneous applications for SNAP and health care programs. Encourage inter-agency referrals under existing programs as an interim measure until a new and improved system is in place.
Recommendation 2.3: Assist households in claiming all available income deductions to increase the amount of monthly SNAP benefits allotted.
Action 2.3.1: Collaborate with DTA and agencies that assist seniors and persons with disabilities in claiming and verifying un-reimbursed, eligible medical and transportation expenses.
Action 2.3.2: Collaborate with EEC to identify low-income working families who may qualify for SNAP. Assist them with applications, and ensure that families claim all eligible child care, after-school, and transportation expenses.
Action 2.3.3: Produce client-friendly SNAP outreach educational materials that are Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) accessible and multi-lingual to highlight all eligible income deductions.
Action 2.3.4: Provide additional reimbursement to community partners that are managing more SNAP applications since the DTA’s change to program administration.
 USDA Food and Nutrition Service. (2015). Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program State Activity Report. Accessed November 2015 from http://goo.gl/8XyrX5.
 Information provided by regional food banks in Massachusetts. Notes taken in Food Access, Security, and Health working group.
 USDA Food and Nutrition Service. (2015). Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Data and Statistics. Accessed November 2015 from http://goo.gl/Bz4qQA.