Cook County

Virus Relief Plan Gives Cook County Reprieve on Food Stamps

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Food stamps recipients in that nation's second-largest county are getting a reprieve through a coronavirus relief package signed this month, but it's only temporary.

Nearly 60,000 people in Cook County, who are able-bodied, without dependents and under age 50, were at risk of losing their public benefits under fresh guidelines that took effect this year. Because of improved economic conditions in the county, those individuals had to meet certain work, school or volunteer requirements or be restricted to three months of benefits every three years.

The fallout — possibly losing benefits — was expected to hit around the same time a similar but unconnected Trump administration rule to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, affected the same category of people nationwide. In Illinois, an additional 90,000 people would have been affected by that federal rule change expected to take effect April 1. Nationwide, nearly 700,000 could have lost benefits.

Attorneys general in roughly 20 states, including Illinois and Michigan, sued and a judge granted an injunction March 13, but that would have left out Cook County.

Now, all able-bodied recipients will continue to receive benefits during the national emergency and get a one-month grace period when it ends.

The move was welcome news for advocates and state officials who have been scrambling to find alternatives, like applying for waivers and trying to create job training programs. They were worried about an increase in homelessness with low-income people having to divert money from housing to food. The relief package that President Donald Trump signed on March 18 offers wide-ranging help including paid sick leave, unemployment insurance protections and other SNAP protections.

“It’s a temporary repeal during a national emergency,” said Jeremy Rosen of the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law. "That’s a wonderful thing, but it shouldn’t be thought of as permanent."'

Illinois Department of Human Services officials said they applied for waivers for Cook County that they hope will cover the population when the national emergency is over.

"Waiver approval will allow vulnerable populations across the state to continue to receive access to food,” said agency spokeswoman Meghan Powers. “We strongly urge the federal government to approve SNAP waivers during this time so that people can stay safe.”

The state has also been trying to make changes to encourage SNAP recipients to stay home during the pandemic. For one, state officials sought, and were granted, a six-month extension for when food stamp recipients would need to come into the office to re-qualify for benefits. The state is also looking at ways to offer delivery for food vouchers.

“We’re trying to ease the restrictions,” said agency Secretary Grace Hou.

Criteria limiting food stamps have been around for decades, but states have been able to waive time limits in certain circumstances.

The new Trump rules, the first of three targeting SNAP, make it harder to get waivers. SNAP feeds about 36 million people nationwide. Able-bodied individuals affected by the rule change make up about 7%.

While the spread of the coronavirus was not a factor in the injunction, the judge did make a note of it.

"Especially now, as a global pandemic poses widespread health risks, guaranteeing that government officials at both the federal and state levels have less flexibility to address the nutritional needs of residents and ensure their well-being through programs like SNAP, is essential," wrote Chief Judge Beryl Howell of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

States that are taking drastic measures to curb the spread of the virus said the injunction alleviated pressure for vulnerable people.

"Although this fight is not over, I am relieved that the court halted this rule from taking effect in the midst of our current public health emergency," Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel said in a statement.

Federal officials planned to appeal.

The Trump administration has touted the change as a way to get people working and save $5.5 billion over five years.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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