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Introduction

ALERT:  Many of the rules in the SNAPAdvocacy Guide do NOT apply during the pandemic. Please go to the following COVID-19 & DTA benefits page: https://www.masslegalservices.org/DTA-COVID-19 until further notice for more information about changes.

SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the nation’s “first line of defense against hunger.” SNAP remains a highly effective 100 percent federally funded program that brings over $1.2 billion per year in nutrition dollars to one in nine low-income Massachusetts residents, with food purchases made at over 5,000 local grocers. National economists estimate that every $1 in SNAP benefits triggers a $1.72 economic stimulus to the local economy during recessionary times. 

Receipt of SNAP not only gives low income households resources to purchase healthy food – it also triggers automatic free school meals status for elementary and secondary school students, allows SNAP households regulated utility discounts, access to museums and cultural events at a discount and more. When in season, SNAP households can also qualify for the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets.

This SNAP Advocacy Guide produced by the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute (MLRI) walks you through the core eligibility rules for SNAP: How to apply, what proofs are needed, how much income is counted, how the household composition rules work and more. It also includes advocacy tips on how to fix SNAP problems – inaccurate denials, inappropriate verification demands, how to file an appeal and what happens in a hearing. This Advocacy Guide tool is for low income households, community organizations and legal services advocates.

SNAP remains a critical safety-net program in difficult economic times. It is especially important for low-income older adults and persons with disabilities to remain in the community, and as a work support for low-wage families, homeless and unemployed individuals in economic crisis.

 

About the SNAP Program

Congress first created the Food Stamp Program in 1964 to reduce hunger by increasing the food-buying power of low-income households. The landmark Food Stamp Act of 1977 modernized the Food Stamp program by removing the “purchase” requirement and made other important changes that enabled more low income households to access benefits. In 2008, Congress renamed the program to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP. (most states, like Massachusetts, adopted this name).

SNAP was most recently reauthorized in the 2018 Farm Bill, State and national advocates joined forces to successfully protect and defend cuts to SNAP. We thank all of the Massachusetts anti-hunger organizations for their fantastic advocacy to protect this important program!

In Massachusetts the SNAP program is administered by the Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA). In recent years and in collaboration with MLRI and the SNAP Coalition, DTA has focused its efforts on improving customer service, and timely processing, lowering DTA Assistance Line wait times, improving applications and forms, and simplifying reporting rules.

In 2018 DTA rolled out a specialized Senior Assistance Office (SAO) dedicated to helping low-income older adults apply for SNAP increased the number of SNAP outreach partners with local Councils on Aging, amd implemented an "Elderly and Disabled Simplified Application Project” to extend SNAP certification periods and reduce interim reporting. In 2020 we anticipate that DTA will continue to implement improvements including text messaging, improvements to the Assistance Line, and a telephonic signature option. These customer service changes can decrease administrative tasks and remove barriors that can deter otherwise eligible households from accessing SNAP benefits.

Threats to SNAP in 2020

As this 2020 Advocacy Guide goes to print, USDA has issued three sets of rule changes in 2019 that may cut access to SNAP - including:

  • Limiting state flexibility to waive the 3-month SNAP rule for childless adults ages 18 to 49 in areas of the state with elevated rates of unemployment. January 2020 Status: Rule finalized, but not in effect until April 1, 2020. It is possible a court could stop implementation in 2020.
  • Limiting state flexibility to use a higher (200% FPL) gross income test for working families and eliminating the state option to waive the burdensome asset test/ This proposed rule could trigger loss of SNAP for over 50,000 MA households and cause thousands of MA children to lose free meal status. January 2020 status: Proposed rule is pending (has not been finalized).
  • Requiring states with high energy costs to use a lower standard utility allowance in determining shelter costs, which could trigger cuts in monthly SNAP benefits by roughly $50/month for over 200,000 MA households. January 2020 Status: Proposed rule is pending (has not been finalized).

For a chart summarizing these three rules, visit Masslegalservices.org/MLRI-2019-SNAPcomments. It is also possible courts may enjoin (stop) USDA from implementing final rules if they find the rules violate Congressional intent or other federal requirements. To stay updated on the status of these SNAP rules and what you can do, join the MA SNAP Coalition (see below).

The Massachusetts SNAP Gap 

SNAP currently serves about 454,500 Massachusetts households comprised of 768,800 low-income residents - 1 in 9 people in the Commonwealth. The majority of SNAP recipients are older adults, persons with severe disabilities, minor children and adults struggling with temporary unemployment or under employment.

The MassHealth (Medicaid) program, serves over approximately 1.9 million low income Massachusetts residents. According to the state, 1.7 million have gross incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level – yet only half of these likely SNAP eligible MassHealth recipients are receiving SNAP nutrition benefits. Massachusetts continues to have a “SNAP gap” of nearly 700,000 individuals, many of whom were previously receiving SNAP but who have fallen off benefits.

The SNAP Gap Coalition continues to pursue legislation in 2020 that will create a “common application,” allowing low-income individuals and families seeking health care to apply for SNAP at the same time they file an application or renewal for MassHealth. It’s time to close the SNAP Gap!

Stay informed, get involved!

MLRI helps coordinate the Food SNAP Coalition. This is a coalition of anti-hunger agencies, health care and homelessness providers, faith-based organizations, community action programs and legal services advocates. DTA, the Department of Public Health, Office of Refugee and Immigrants and other state agency staff frequently attend. Formed in 2000, the Eastern MA Coalition meets 10 times a year in Boston (4th Tuesday of the month). The Worcester County Food Bank and Central West Justice Center host regional SNAP Coalition meetings bi-monthly and the Western Mass Food Bank hosts Coalition meeting quarterly. Coalition members share updates on state and federal SNAP policy, child nutrition, WIC and other anti-hunger programs that affect Massachusetts households.
 
If you would like to receive email updates on SNAP and child nutrition program policy changes, announcements of Coalition meetings or trainings, and state and national legislative action alerts, contact: Pat Baker at pbaker@mlri.org or Vicky Negus at vnegus@mlri.org
 
To get legal advice and representation on your individual case, contact your local Legal Services office by going to: Masslegalhelp.org/findlegalaid.
 

Additional State and National SNAP Resources

The following national and state organizations and USDA provide a wealth of important information on SNAP program and other nutrition programs.

Sources of Law:

Federal:

DTA must administer the program in accordance with the federal regulations issued by USDA and any waivers or demonstration projects approved by USDA.

  • The federal regulations are printed in Title 7 of the Code of Federal Regulations (7 C.F.R. § 271 et seq.).
  • USDA publishes proposed, interim and final rules at the following link:  fns.usda.gov/snap
  • You can also find USDA’s policy memos and program updates at: fns.usda.gov/snap/whats_new.html

State:

DTA issues its own SNAP regulations. The DTA SNAP regulations are printed in Chapter 106 of the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (C.M.R.).

 

DTA policy guidance:

DTA issues a wide range of guidance on the SNAP and cash program policies and procedures;