As businesses closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus, tens of thousands of laid off Louisiana workers turned to SNAP (better known as Food Stamps), to help their families keep food on the table. But for thousands of families that had managed to put aside modest savings toward things like a security deposit for a safer apartment or a down payment on a reliable car, food assistance remains out of reach. That’s because Louisiana imposes an “asset test” on SNAP benefits, forcing people who have lost their job to deplete most of their savings before they can access the program.
Louisiana can avoid this trap by exercising an option called Broad Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE, or, “categorical eligibility”). Doing so would help people affected by the virus to continue feeding their families without sacrificing their hard-won economic security.
More than 40 states use categorical eligibility to help people with low incomes and modest savings afford food. More than 30 states use the option to raise SNAP’s gross income test, letting low-income workers access food benefits when they earn slightly more than the program’s income cutoff, but have high expenses for things like housing, medical care, and child care, that drive them into poverty.
Louisiana is no stranger to this policy. From 2010 through 2014, the state used BBCE to support families who received compensation for losses due to the 2010 BP Oil Spill, ensuring that they wouldn’t lose their food benefits as a result.
This was a smart policy decision: Even outside of disaster situations, categorical eligibility is a highly effective option for supporting low-income working people. The state’s decision to adopt BBCE in 2010 allowed thousands of people working in the fishing and seafood processing industries, along with countless others whose livelihoods were tied to the health of the Gulf of Mexico, to access food assistance while also receiving compensation for their losses.
Now, as Louisiana faces another crisis, lifting SNAP’s asset test and raising the program’s gross income threshold are more important than ever. Making sure that Louisianans who need help to stay fed, can get that help without giving up their economic cushion will put them — and the state — in a better position to bounce back from the coronavirus recession. And for people earning moderate incomes who face high medical bills, as is likely to be common in a pandemic, the ability to access food assistance is a lifeline.
SNAP is one of America’s best tools for economic stimulus. Getting SNAP benefits into the hands of more people who need them will help our state’s economy recover more quickly. And since the Families First Coronavirus Response Act increased many households’ SNAP allotments, the program is likely to be an especially strong driver of economic recovery.
Our state faces an unprecedented challenge. When the coronavirus passes, we will have a long recovery ahead of us. By implementing categorical eligibility now, we can help make sure that thousands of Louisiana families enter that recovery with a bit more of what they had saved up when this crisis began.