Remembering the government shutdown.
On January 20, 2019 millions of SNAP participants woke up to a surprise: an unexpected month of SNAP benefits deposited onto their EBT cards. On January 10, to ensure that SNAP households would receive benefits during the lapse in appropriations, FNS provided a blanket waiver to all State Agencies to allow states to issue February benefits prior to January 20. If states did not issue benefits before January 20, clients might not receive February SNAP benefits.
And in a herculean effort, state agencies, counties, EBT processors, client advocates, and others worked tirelessly to ensure families did not lose out on SNAP benefits. Every single state made the deadline and issued February benefits on or before January 20, 2019.
A crisis was averted, but challenges remained. Namely: getting word to participants that benefits would be issued early, helping SNAP participants stretch those benefits for the full two months, and supporting families likely to run out of benefits early.
Getting the word out and dispelling myths.
As soon as states made the decision to issue benefits early, states, counties and community-based organizations began getting word to participants that the extra deposit in January was not a mistake: the extra benefits were not additional, they were issued early. They sent emails, mailings, shared via social media, newspapers, and television, and hung posters in community centers and grocery stores. Fresh EBT joined this chorus of voices to share state messages. By leveraging Fresh EBT’s home screen and notifications, Propel helped to amplify state messages directly to SNAP participants. In January, Fresh EBT showed the message “Due to the government shutdown, your February SNAP benefits may be deposited early, around January 20. You will receive more benefits in February.” (with slight variations by state) over 12 million times directly to SNAP households across the country.
But communication challenges remained. Rumors were circulating among SNAP participants. Messages like, “hurry up and spend your SNAP benefits, EBT cards will not work in February” went viral. Many families struggled to sort through misinformation and turned to social media or friends and family for answers. Combating misinformation about early issuance was challenging and very time-sensitive.
Fresh EBT joined our partners to dispel these myths as quickly as possible through social media, blog posts, and a dedicated section in Fresh EBT’s help center.
Stretching benefits over two months: hide the cookies.
States, counties and the nonprofit community began to raise alarm bells about the difficulty of sorting through myths. Even without the misinformed advice to “spend benefits quickly,” it was going to be difficult for income-constrained families to spread benefits evenly over the full two months. Due to our present-bias, most of us struggle when budgeting a large lump sum. We have a tendency to spend more than we should right after our payday and then have to penny-pinch at the end of our pay period (1). As a result, those who get paid only once a month (a large lump sum) do not budget as well as those who get paid twice a month (2). Looking into the eyes of your hungry kids does not make it any easier.
“Because clients will have two months’ worth of food dollars on their EBT cards this month, we urge them to plan and budget wisely. It is important for them to use January benefits in January, and February’s benefits in February.”
— Dr. Kara Odom Walker, Delaware DHSS Cabinet Secretary
With Common Cents, we were able to create and launch a new budgeting feature within a few days to let users “hide” their February benefits on the app.
SNAP participants using Fresh EBT had the option to choose to “hide” some of their benefits. Like putting cookies in the back of the cabinet. They could choose if they wanted to hide benefits and how much and for how long. Of course, like the cookies, the benefits were still there and could be accessed at any time, but the mental trick was the same.
About 40,000 of Propel’s Fresh EBT users opted into the feature, hiding away more than $10 million. And benefits lasted longer into February for participants who opted into this feature as compared to those who did not.
“I usually always make my food stamps last the month but for some reason I already ran out.”
- Anonymous SNAP participant, 2/4/2019
February SNAP gap.
Budgeting tools and technology are not enough to counter hunger. And, many who have spent their careers working on SNAP began preparing for an increase in hunger in February, a ripple impact of early issuance.
Food Banks and community-based organizations across the country responded in quick order. They organized massive campaigns to make more food available through increased outreach, pop-up food pantries, and extended hours to accommodate increased demand.
At Fresh EBT, we had been working with a program called Full Cart, a project of Feeding Children Everywhere. Full Cart, a nonprofit organization, offers deeply discounted meal kits to income-constrained families across the country. Knowing that many families would not be able to afford the $10-$15 for the discounted boxes, Propel worked with foundations across the country to raise funds to cover the full cost and shipping and provide the meal kits for free.
Fresh EBT, used its platform to target messages to the most income-constrained: families who had a lower than $10 SNAP balance remaining in early February.
Thanks to Full Cart, individual donors and foundations including the AARP Foundation, Kleiner Perkins, the MAV Foundation, the Omidyar Network, the Robin Hood Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, Full Cart shipped over 800,000 meals to SNAP households across the country in the last two weeks of February 2019.
Responding to future disasters.
Early issuance was an unexpected shock to the system. Many in state and county governments, as well as the USDA, went above and beyond in this unusual time. Fresh EBT’s role is to support state and partner efforts and provide a direct connection to SNAP households across the country. During this time, Fresh EBT reached over 3 million SNAP participants within a few hours of us learning about early issuance. Throughout January and February, and even into March, we were able to provide updates, answer questions, and respond to new needs with budgeting tools and free meals.
Moving forward, Fresh EBT will continue to amplify state messages and directly support SNAP participants during crises. To learn more about partnering with Propel, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Bodkin, R.G., 1959. Windfall income and consumption. American Economic Review 49(4), 602–614, and Beshears, J. and Milkman, K. 2008. Mental Accounting and Small Windfalls: Evidence from an Online Grocer. Harvard Business School — Working Paper 08–024.
- Berniell, I. (2016). Waiting for the paycheck: individual and aggregate effects of wage payment.