On the last night of the legislative session, the Illinois General Assembly approved House Joint Resolution (HJR) 43, as amended, establishing a task force to recommend possible changes in Illinois’s monthly schedule for distributing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
The monthly SNAP distribution schedule affects the vital interests of the two million Illinois residents who rely on SNAP benefits to avoid hunger, especially the 60,000 young children, older adults, people with disabilities, working families and others who enroll or re-enroll in the program each month.
Here is why the SNAP distribution schedule is so important. When a SNAP application is approved, the household receives a partial month’s issuance that covers their needs for the rest of the month in which they applied. They then receive their first full monthly issuance in the following month. If that issuance occurs late in the month, they must “stretch” their initial partial-month issuance for a far longer period than it is intended to cover.
Here is an example:
- The maximum monthly SNAP allotment for a household of three is $526. More than 1/3 of SNAP households are poor enough to receive the maximum allotment.
- Assume a household of three that is eligible for the maximum allotment applies on April 11, is approved on April 16 (standard processing time), and receives their SNAP benefits loaded on their LINK EBT card on April 18 (standard). On April 18, the household would receive $351, a partial-month issuance intended to cover them for the 20 days from the date they applied (April 11) through the end of the month (April 30). This $351 is 2/3 of the household's full monthly allotment of $526.
- If the issuance of SNAP benefits were distributed evenly across the month, and this household’s regular issuance day was the 27nd of the month, it would not receive its next issuance until May 27.
- The household would have to “stretch” the $351 it received on April 18 for 40 days, until May 27.
- The household needs twice as much, $700, over 40 days to avoid experiencing hunger.
Spreading SNAP issuances across the month would cause households to experience hunger not only during their first month on SNAP but also each time they leave and later re-enroll in the program. This is a common occurrence for working families whose income and eligibility for the program fluctuates. Over 70 percent of SNAP recipients are in working families with children.
To avoid causing SNAP recipients to experience hunger by having a long waiting period between when they receive their initial partial-month issuance and when they receive their first full issuance, IDHS has begun to distribute all SNAP benefits within the first ten days of the month.
Food retailers, represented by the Illinois Retail Merchants Association (IRMA), would prefer that the issuance of SNAP benefits be spread out more evenly across the month. According to IRMA, an even distribution of benefits throughout the month is needed to avoid a rush on stores at the start of the month and empty stores later in the month. They claim that this creates staffing and customer service problems and prevents them from stocking adequate supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables, thus harming SNAP participants as well as retailers.
The retailers’ argument is premised on the assumption that SNAP participants spend all of their benefits on the day they receive them. This assumption is refuted by the data covering all $250 million in SNAP issuances and usage during April 2013. These data show that, although 70 percent of SNAP benefits were issued during the first ten days of the month, actual usage is fairly even throughout the month, with only a small drop-off in the last 10 days of the month.
When the Illinois Department of Human Services stood by its decision to issue all SNAP benefits during the first 10 days of the month, IRMA decided to seek a legislative solution. It drafted legislation that was never filed that would have mandated the state spread out its issuance of SNAP benefits across the month. IRMA’s legislation gave no consideration to how such a schedule would inflict hunger on SNAP participants.
As the end of the legislative session loomed and the prospects for passage of the legislation IRMA had drafted but never filed dimmed, IRMA decided instead to introduce HJR 43, which again focused solely on the retailers’ interest in having the distribution of SNAP benefits spread more evenly throughout the month and gave no consideration to how this would affect the vital interest of SNAP participants in avoiding hunger.
The Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law and Heartland Alliance for Human Needs and Human Rights co-led successful advocacy to amend the resolution to ensure that the task force also considers the interests of SNAP participants in avoiding hunger when recommending a new SNAP distribution schedule. The amended resolution that passed the House and Senate requires that the task force's recommendations not increase hunger; adds "hunger" to the task force's name; frames the task force in the context of the SNAP program; and adds the Greater Chicago Food Depository as a member of the task force.
In addition to a representative from the Shriver Center, Governor Quinn has appointed representatives from Heartland Alliance, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Illinois Retail Merchants Associations, the Illinois Food Retailers Association, and the Illinois Department of Human Services to the task force. Each of the four legislative leaders has also appointed one member of the task force. The task force is being chaired by Rep. Sara Feigenholtz and Sen. Jacqueline Collins, both sponsors of HJR 43, and includes Rep. Norrine Hammond and Sen. Syverson. The task force’s report is due by October 1, which will allow for legislative action during the two-week fall veto session that begins on October 22.
Several organizations contributed to the successful advocacy to amend HJR 43 to require that the task force consider the interests of SNAP participants in avoiding hunger and not solely the interests of food retailers. These organizations include the Shriver Center, Heartland Alliance, Bread for the World, the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the Illinois Hunger Coalition, Illinois Action for Children, and the Ounce of Prevention Fund. In the months ahead, anti-hunger, anti-poverty and low-income children’s advocates need to remain vigilant to ensure that, as the task force’s charge provides, any plan to change the distribution schedule for SNAP benefits must do so without increasing hunger.