BBB Specifics: Child Nutrition and Child Tax Credit

Last week, President Biden and Congress unveiled the latest version of the federal recovery package, coined the Build Back Better plan. This package represents a significant investment in Montana communities, geared toward expanding economic opportunity and lowering costs for families and workers. Historic investments in child care, preschool, school nutrition, and the child tax credit will help lift millions of children from poverty. Over the next week, Montana Budget & Policy Center will provide information on key components of this package. We’ll start with child nutrition and the child tax credit.

The economic relief package before Congress is a historic step in relieving childhood hunger and poverty. Even prior to the pandemic, too many families struggled to make ends meet. But the pandemic has amplified the challenges many families face. One in ten adults living with children report that the children in their household aren’t getting enough food to eat this fall.

Child Nutrition Provisions
The federal package takes vital steps in addressing childhood hunger by addressing the summer meal crisis.

  • Authorizes Summer Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT). When schools are closed in the summer, many children who rely on the school for free or reduced-price meals are left with nutritional gaps. For the summers of 2023 and 2024, eligible families would receive $65 per child per month. States and Indian Tribal Organizations will also receive grants to build capacity to implement S-EBT. This program helped reduce hunger during the summers of 2020 and 2021 as Pandemic-EBT and will be available to states in 2022.
  • Expand Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). Many children live in areas with high poverty rates and miss out on free and reduced-price meals due to difficulty accessing the program. CEP allows all students to receive free meals at school if there is a substantial number of qualifying students. The new guidelines would lower the Identified Student Percentage from 40 percent to 25 percent, include a statewide CEP option, and increase the federal reimbursement rate.
  • Provide increase funding for healthy school meals. The plan would also provide $250 million to Healthy Food Incentives Demonstration projects to improve the quality of food served and allow for fresh, local, regional, and culturally appropriate food, and $30 million in school kitchen equipment grants.

These steps to improve childhood nutrition will help over 65,000 students access food during the summer and an additional 11,000 students meals during the school year in Montana.

Child Tax Credit

The extended Child Tax Credit, which was first passed by Congress as part of the American Rescue Plan, is a significant step in addressing childhood poverty. Over 9 out of 10 (209,000) children benefit from the credit in Montana. Here is what the recent framework does.

  • Extends benefit amount for one year. The increase in the size of the credit is extended for one year into 2022, with families receiving $3,600 a year for children aged 0-5 and $3,000 for ages 6-17.
  • Makes refundability permanent. Before this bill, one-third of children in Montana did not receive the full benefit of the CTC because their families earned too little. Under the new plan, the credit will be fully refundable, meaning all families will receive the full amount on their refund, even if they owe less in taxes than the credit amount. This change will reduce childhood poverty by an estimated twenty percent nationwide.

Research shows that Montanans are using their Child Tax Credits to pay for food, utilities, housing, childcare, and provide kids with educational opportunities. This framework is an important step forward to address the crises facing Montana children and families.

The Data is in: Families are Spending their Child Tax Credits on Basic Needs

We’ve written before about how the expanded Child Tax Credit (CTC) is a historical step in lifting children out of poverty. But new data released from the U.S. Census Bureau can help us better understand how families use the expanded tax credit to meet their basic needs.

First, a quick recap about what the expanded CTC is: 

The CTC has long been part of our tax code. This past summer, Congress increased and expanded it to help families recover from the pandemic and address the cost of raising children. Congress increased the benefit amount, included 17-year-olds, and allowed families living on the lowest incomes to receive the full benefit for the first time. Families receive $250 a month per child aged 6-17 and $300 a month for children under 6.

Over 209,000 children qualify for the credit in Montana. The expansion is projected to reduce childhood poverty in the state by 45 percent a year if made permanent. For more information on how the expanded CTC works, be sure to read our blog post here.          

New Data Shows Families in Montana are using CTC to meet basic needs.

Since the summer of 2020. the U.S. Census Bureau has been conducting the Pulse Survey to measure the effects of the pandemic on households. Recently, the survey has asked households with children how they have spent their credits.

Data from July through September shows us that families in Montana used their first two CTC payments to meet basic needs, including food, clothing, rent, and utilities.

Here are some important takeaways from the data:

  • Nearly half (44%) of all families are using their credit on food for their household.
  • 3 out of 5 families spent their credits on basic needs and/or educational expenses regardless of their income.

For families living on less than $35,000 a year, the credit is even more essential. Here’s how families living on low incomes used their credit:

  • Food  65% of families spent their credit on food.
  • Utilities – 40% of families used their credit on utility bills.
  • Educational expenses – 34% of families used their credit on educational needs, including after-school care.Clothing – 32% of families used their credit on clothing.
  • Rent or mortgage – 29% of families paid rent or their mortgage with their tax credit. 
  • Basic needs and educational expenses – 4 out of 5 low-income families used their credit on basic needs and/or educational expenses. 

The tax credit also helps families afford to work.

In Montana, ten percent of families, and 17 percent of families with children under the age of 5, used the credit to pay child care expenses. The coronavirus pandemic has forced many parents, especially mothers, out of the workforce, due to health concerns, school closures, and a lack of affordable child care. For families who need child care to work, the credit helps make work accessible.

Congress should make the expanded CTC permanent.

This new data from the Census Bureau demonstrates how much families need this additional support. When families can afford rent, food, and other necessities, children ultimately do better. Congress should make the expanded CTC permanent and continue this historic victory against childhood poverty.

Back to school means better access to meals for many Montana children

As kids across Montana stuff their backpacks with notebooks, pencils, and crayons, there is one thing they won’t have to worry about packing – their school lunch. This year, like last year, children nationwide have been able to receive free school meals.

The pandemic meant extraordinary administrative challenges, frequently changing financial circumstances, and unforeseen stressors, For schools and families alike. Free school meals have provided consistency for millions of children and families, who did not have to navigate a complicated application process in a time of uncertain employment.

Most importantly, they provided students with nutrition and a chance to learn and grow in a time of unprecedented challenges. And while the pandemic surges on, free school meals address a childhood hunger crisis that existed even before the coronavirus made us painfully aware of the schools’ role in keeping students fed.

When schools closed in the spring of 2020, American policymakers realized how many students relied on school meals. Many students living on low incomes were eligible to receive free or reduced-price school meals. Unfortunately, these programs often left out students whose income was a little too high, and families who weren’t aware of the program or didn’t understand the application.

No child in Montana – a state that helps feed the nation – should know what hunger feels like. But too many do. This summer, 29,000 households in the state reported that the children in the household had not received enough food to eat the past week. As children head back to school, free school meals can help address this crisis.

The extension of free school meals is set to expire at the end of the 2021-2022 school year. However, Congress has the opportunity to decrease food insecurity in children for years to come.

The first proposal is expanding the Summer Electronic Benefit Transfer (Summer EBT). In the summer of 2020, Congress provided food assistance for families who received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and/or free and reduced-priced school meals, because those students were unable to receive school meals when the schools closed. The program was extended through the summer of 2020 as many families struggled to utilize summer meal service sites due to the pandemic. In the summer of 2021, the program was again renewed, helping to address the challenge of summer hunger that existed even prior to the pandemic.

Congress should make summer EBT a permanent feature, providing 29 million children with assistance when school meals are not an option. Montana does provide free summer meals at certain sites through the Summer Food Service Program (SFSP), and this year served a record number of summer meals. But while Summer Nutrition Programs, including the SFSP, are an important resource for families, they only reach one out of every five kids who qualify. Summer EBT can help fill the gaps in nutrition many children experience during the summer.

The second change is increasing the Community Eligibility Provision. Community eligibility allows schools to provide free meals to all students in high poverty areas, regardless of their income. This flexibility helps catch families who would normally be eligible, but do not know about it or think they might be ineligible and never apply.

Community eligibility also helps reduce the stigma of free and reduced-price lunches, allowing all children to meet their needs without fear of judgment. The proposed federal budget would increase the share of federal fund for the program, allowing more schools to pursue this option.

The pandemic has taught us that we cannot undervalue the roles that schools play in our towns and cities. Not only are they centers of learning, but sources of safety, community, and nutrition for thousands of Montana children. Congress should act now to help expand schools’ ability to make sure that no child goes hungry during school or the summer. A strong federal budget matters when it comes to keeping Montana’s children hunger free. 

What would help families make ends meet? Make the Child Tax Credit permanent

Congress has an opportunity to help Montanans not only recover from the effects of the coronavirus, but to create a nation that includes everyone in its growing economy. Now is the time to address the challenges faced by Montanans, especially Montanans living on low-incomes and Montanans of color. We have the opportunity now to rebuild a stronger country, if Congress makes permanent its changes to the Child Tax Credit.

The Child Tax Credit (CTC) can drastically and permanently reduce childhood poverty and hunger. It can also begin to address racial injustices in our tax code if the changes made earlier this year become permanent.

This summer, families received much-needed support through a one-time expansion of the CTC. The effects have been immediately noticeable – food insecurity has dropped, and families are better able to afford childcare.

Over 9 out of 10 children in Montana will benefit from the expansion. A permanent expansion of the CTC could reduce childhood poverty by 45 percent, meaning 10,000 fewer children in Montana would live in poverty. For families of color, who have long felt the burden of a discriminatory tax code, the changes could reduce child poverty even more. Up to 55 percent fewer children of color will live in poverty if Congress permanently expands the CTC.

New, temporary changes to the CTC benefit families.

Before the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the CTC was $2,000 for children 16 years and under. For the first time, the CTC includes 17-year-olds. Under the ARP, the CTC amount for children under 6 is $3,600, and for children aged 6 to 17, $3,000. Starting July 15, families began receiving monthly payments and will continue to receive them through the end of 2021. For each child under 6, this means a monthly check of $300 and $250 for those aged 6 to 17.

These credits can help significantly reduce the cost of raising children. For parents with a four-year-old, $300 a month can help cover roughly 40 percent of average monthly childcare costs, or it could equal up to a month’s worth of food for a child. Parents could also pay for other needs and opportunities, like new shoes or music lessons.

But while the dollar increase in the CTC has made the most headlines, it is not the only significant change.

Prior to this summer, the CTC was not completely available to families living on the lowest incomes. In the past, families did not receive the full tax credit if the amount they owed in taxes was less than the total credit. This meant higher-income families received a larger credit than families living on the lowest incomes.

For this year only, however, the tax credit is “fully refundable,” meaning families can receive the full amount, even if the amount they owe in taxes is less than the total credit received. This is a vital change for those families who need it the most and will be able to benefit from the full credit for the first time.

The refundability of the CTC reduces historical racial injustices.

American Indian families have suffered the consequences of discriminatory policies for generations. For example, the forcible transfer of land from American Indians to non-Indians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries destroyed opportunities to build generational wealth, creating lasting impacts today. American Indians have, and continue to be, discriminated against in education, housing, and employment opportunities, pushing many families into poverty. Due to inequitable policies, American Indians living in Montana experience poverty are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than white Montanans are.

Our tax code has doubled down on these injustices, as families living on the lowest incomes have not been eligible to receive the full CTC. This discrimination against those living on low incomes has served to perpetuate a cycle of poverty. But because the CTC is refundable for the first time, families living on low incomes can receive the full credit this year.

Refundability of the CTC is essential for families of color. Nationwide, the CTC expansion would lift 124,000 American Indians and Alaska Natives above the poverty line and 156,000 closer to the poverty line. In Montana, poverty for children of color would be reduced by 55 percent each year if these changes in the CTC were made permanent.

The CTC provided immediate impact and helped rural communities.

Food insufficiency in households with children dropped the week after families received the checks. Nearly half of respondents in a Census survey reported spending the credit on food. The CTC also helped families afford childcare – 17 percent of respondents with children under the age of 5 spent the credit on child care. With Montana facing a critical childcare shortage, the changes to the CTC can help more families afford quality care for their children.

As families spend their tax credit on their most urgent needs, they simultaneously stimulate their local economies, generating jobs and state and local tax revenue. The CTC provides a substantial benefit in rural states, like Montana, with smaller incomes and larger family sizes. The total expanded CTC, which brings in over $824 million to the state, could create 2,156 median wage jobs.

Refundability of the CTC should be permanent.

The changes to the CTC, including the increased benefit, expanded ages, and refundability, benefit over 90 percent of Montana children. But while the CTC has long been a source of support for families, the fact that families living on the lowest incomes could not receive the full credit especially children of color.

Allowing the CTC to return its previous state of non-refundability would discriminate against families of color who were driven into poverty by racially motivated discriminatory policies, like the forcible transfer of land and the underfunding of tribal colleges. Congress should act to make the refundability of the CTC a permanent feature to take steps in correcting this historical injustice.

State must act immediately to prevent large SNAP cut from hurting Montanans

At the end of June, Governor Gianforte announced the termination of Montana’s state of emergency. This move effectively ends emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for over 46,000 Montana households. Unless the Governor and the Department of Public Health and Human Services takes immediate action, thousands of Montanans living on low incomes are at risk of a substantial cut in their food assistance.

Emergency allotments have helped thousands during uncertain times.

Montana ranks above the national average in numbers of adults and children reporting food insecurity. The health and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic have made affording food substantially more difficult for individuals living on low incomes. An estimated 84,000 adults in Montana report the household did not have enough food to eat in the last week. For families with children, the crisis is even greater – 30,000 adults living with children report the children in the household did not have enough food to eat.

Substantial increases in food prices have made it even more difficult for families and individuals living on low incomes to afford food. Food prices have climbed 5 percent since May 2020 and are expected to continue rising through 2021.

Emergency allotments (EAs) are a temporary increase in SNAP benefits to help households living on low incomes weather the COVID health crisis, a volatile job market, and an unequal economic recovery. This additional benefit raised each household’s SNAP benefits to the maximum benefit for their household size, supporting those hit hardest by the pandemic. For a state to receive emergency allotments, the state must either have a state of emergency in place, or an equivalent declaration approved by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).

Montana households will lose nearly $100 a month in benefits. Some will lose even more.

Emergency allotments have been the largest source of pandemic related food assistance for people receiving SNAP benefits. With EAs, every household received at least $95 per month as of April 2021.

Some households will lose even more. For example, a senior who had been receiving the minimum SNAP benefit prior to the pandemic would now be receiving $234 with emergency allotments (as well as a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits that USDA issued) each month. If emergency allotments end, they will find their benefits reduced to less than $20.

SNAP benefits have long been inadequate in addressing hunger. Even with the additional benefits the average per-person per-meal benefits is only $2.53. Without emergency allotments, families would be left with only $1.60 per person for each meal.

Emergency allotments strengthen Montana’s economy.

A loss in emergency allotments will create unnecessary hardship for over 46,000 households in Montana. This move will not only make it difficult for families to put food on the table, but will also endanger Montana’s post-pandemic economic recovery as the state loses $8 million a month in federally-funded assistance.

SNAP has long been one of the most effective ways to support the economy during financial crises, with every dollar spent in SNAP generating up to $1.50 in economic activity. Emergency allotments generate up to $12 million in economic activity every month, supporting local stores, businesses, and farmers across the state.

SNAP serves as a vital work support, with four out of five households having one or more individuals who worked within the last year. The majority of those who are not currently employed are children, elderly, or disabled. Nearly half of SNAP households in Montana (48 percent) have children, and 47 percent of households include one or more individuals living with a disability. Nearly one-third of SNAP households have an individual over age 60. These households, who were hard hit by the pandemic, rely on emergency allotments to meet their nutritional needs in the face of spreading COVID variants and rising food costs.

The state has options to preserve expanded SNAP benefits for struggling Montanans.

Several states that have ended their initial state emergency declaration, including Utah, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Minnesota, are still issuing emergency allotments. FNS has signaled it is willing to work with states who have ended their emergency orders to ensure individuals are still receiving the boosted SNAP benefits. Even though Montana is no longer in its initial state of emergency, the state still has the ability to retain emergency allotments.

Last week, Montana Budget & Policy Center, the Montana Food Bank Network, and 27 other organizations around the state, including food pantries and faith groups, sent a letter to the Governor’s office and the Department of Public Health and Human Services asking the state to work with FNS preserve SNAP benefits for Montanans. As the state moves towards the next phase of pandemic recovery, it is essential to preserve help for those who are most in need of support.

Child Tax Credit Awareness Day

The child tax credit is a federal tax credit that provides relief for nearly all working people with children, lifting many families above the poverty line. For 2021, the child tax credit has been increased from $2,000 per child under 17 to $3,000 for each child between the ages of 6 and 17 and to $3,600 for each child under 6.  The credit has also been expanded to be fully refundable, meaning that children whose parents didn’t have enough earnings in a year to claim the full tax credit previously will receive the full credit in 2021. In Montana, 91 percent of children under 18 (209,000 children) will benefit. These changes are expected to reduce child poverty in Montana by 45 percent, by lifting family income above the poverty line.

Beginning July 15, the IRS will begin sending advanced monthly payments of the child tax credit. While payments will differ for different family situations, in general, for each qualifying child under 6, families will receive $300 monthly. For children ages 6 to 17, each family will receive a monthly payment of $250. The remaining half of the credit will be received when 2021 income tax returns are filed.

Am I eligible for the credit?

If you filed a 2019 or 2020 tax return and claimed the child tax credit on the return, live in the US for at least half the year, and have a qualifying child who is under 18 at the end of 2021 with a valid social security number, you are eligible for the credit.

The child tax credit expansion begins phasing out at incomes of $75,000 for single filers, $112,500 for single filers with dependents, and $150,000 for joint filers.

What should I do to receive advanced payments?

If you have filed your 2019 or 2020 taxes, you don’t need to do anything. If the IRS has your banking information on file, they will automatically deposit your monthly advance of the child tax credit. For filers without banking information on file with the IRS, the IRS will issue checks for advanced payments of the credit.

For families that do not file income taxes, the IRS has released a tool to submit your information to receive the automatic payments. Sign up now.

Can I decline the advanced payment?

For families that prefer to wait until they file their 2021 income taxes to receive the additional credit, the IRS plans to release a tool in the coming weeks to unenroll from payments.

How long will the credit expansion last?

The child tax credit expansion is currently only in effect for 2021.

Mothers need our continued support this Mother’s Day:

Every year, we take a moment to honor the support our mothers give to our families and communities. The task of raising children has never been easy, and for too long, parents have done so with not enough support.

But this past year has provided families with an entirely new set of challenges, and mothers have born a disproportionate part of the burdens caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the job market is beginning to recover, women and especially mothers, were hit harder by the recession over the past year. School and childcare closures meant that many parents quit jobs that required them to work outside the home. Women lost more jobs than men, partially due to the fact they are overrepresented in the service sector which was particularly hard hit by business closures. Mothers lost proportionally more jobs than their counterparts without children.

But as pandemic eases and schools are reopening, more and more women are returning to the workforce. But while the situation may not be as desperate as it was six months ago, many of the challenges that women faced during, and even before the pandemic began, are still present.

So as we send mothers across the state a heart-felt “Thank you” this week, let’s pause and consider what mothers really need in order to take care of themselves and their families.

The Problem: A Lack of Affordable Child Care

A lack of affordable childcare has driven countless women out of the workforce for decades. With a shortage of safe and available options this year, women felt the lack of childcare more than ever.

A lack of safe, affordable childcare is a crisis in Montana. Across the state, 48 out of 56 counties fail to meet even 50 percent of demand with licensed childcare providers. The state ranks 40th for childcare availability nationwide. For more information, read our report: The Coronavirus and Child Care: Montana Must Do More for Workers and Families.

Next Steps: Adequately Fund Childcare and Early Education

The American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) provides Montana with funds to help ease both the social and health effects of the pandemic.  House Bill 632, passed by the legislature, will provide $112.5 million for childcare stabilization and block grants. These funds will be provided to childcare desert for one-time equipment and necessary infrastructure, property improvements, worksite childcare, and employee training.

But Montana is still one of only a handful of states without any investment in early education. Montana lawmakers should pre-K programs in order to support parents and families.

The Problem: Paid Leave

The coronavirus pandemic highlighted the importance of access to paid leave when an employee was sick or needed to care for a loved one. But for years prior to the pandemic, women have been expected to return to work soon after giving birth or take unpaid leave to stay with their child. Likewise, if a family is met with an injury or illness, mothers have often had to choose between caring for themselves or a loved one and keeping their job.

Next Steps: The Family and Medical Leave Insurance Act

 Unfortunately, the legislature passed on an opportunity to support not only mothers, but all workers in Montana by failing to pass the Family and Medical Leave Insurance (FAMLI Act).  To read more about the how paid leave could benefit Montanans, read our post here: Time for Montana to Provide Paid Family and Medical Leave.

The Problem: Food Insecurity

School closures, rising food costs, and higher-than-normal rates of unemployment all contributed to rising rates of food insecurity over the past year. Feeding America projects that in 2021, 17 percent of children in Montana will experience food insecurity. While 2021 is likely to see lower rates of food insecurity than 2020 did, there are still far too many mothers in the state who do not know how they will feed children their next meal.

Next Steps: Protect Safety Net Programs

As long as both Montana and the federal government have emergency orders in place, Montanans who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits are also receiving Emergency Allotments. The relief package last spring left out SNAP participants on the lowest incomes, however, these households and individuals will begin receiving $95 in emergency allotment benefits. Over six months, Montana will receive $15.9 million in SNAP benefits, unless the governor decides to end the emergency declaration prematurely.

Flowers and cards are nice ways to show our appreciation, but if we truly wish to support the mothers in our state, we should pay attention to what their needs are. Adequately funding childcare, providing access to paid leave, and ensuring food security are some of the most important ways we can show mothers we care.

Ending Pandemic Unemployment Early Won’t Fix Barriers to Finding Work

On May 4th, Governor Gianforte announced he would end temporary pandemic unemployment assistance. This includes the $300 a week in federal Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation (PEUC) benefits and Pandemic Unemployment Assistance (PUA) benefits for self-employed people, underemployed, independent contractors, and those who cannot work due to health or COVID-19 related reasons. These expanded benefits are slated to end September 6th, but Montana will be the first state to end them early. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), approximately 25,000 Montanans could face the loss of these critical benefits used to support their families.

Instead, the governor proposed a one-time $1,200 “return to work” bonus, which someone would receive after being hired and employed for four weeks. The program is capped at 12,500 individuals and is on a first-come, first-serve basis. The governor argues Montana’s unemployment rate is back at pre-pandemic levels, and this bonus will encourage individuals to return to the labor market. 

But the governor’s carrot-and-stick plan to end pandemic unemployment benefits, and pay workers a one-time “bonus” after they retain employment for a month, is severely misguided and fails to address the root of the worker shortage problem. 

The governor’s plan will disproportionately harm those who already face barriers to accessing work. The COVID-19 pandemic disproportionately impacted American Indian communities, who already faced barriers to employment. The pervasive legacy of racist policies, coupled with current-day discrimination in education and employment, result in American Indians facing much higher unemployment rates. 

Social and economic barriers, including a lack of state investment in tribal colleges, lack of broadband internet availability, and fewer job opportunities, have resulted in unemployment rates on reservations up to four times the statewide average. Because unemployment insurance is typically reported statewide, the governor’s early end to pandemic benefits is another instance of depriving tribal nations and indigenous people an opportunity to access critical resources. 

The world isn’t the same as it was 15 months ago. Workers, especially those in retail or food service, face a new variety of challenges – the risk of infection, enforcing mask and social distancing mandates, school and childcare closures, as well as quarantine orders. 

Even without these new (and significant) reasons, people may be reluctant to reenter a challenging and potentially unsafe work environment because the structural impediments to finding a suitable job that existed before the pandemic remain. Multiple studies have shown that the enhanced benefits did not discourage people from reentering the workforce. But for many workers, a lack of affordable housing and child care makes regular employment simply unworkable.

The current child care supply only provides one slot for every two children under age 6 with working parents. A lack of affordable housing across the state can also make it difficult for businesses to fill open jobs. A single parent raising two children and earning Montana minimum wage would need to work 78 hours a week to afford a modest 2-bedroom rental home at fair market rent ($878). 

A one-time $1,200 benefit will not cover more than one or two months of rent or a few weeks of childcare. After the benefit runs dry, Montana workers will be left facing the same challenges that had forced them out of the workforce in the first place. 

The Return-to-Work Bonus Initiative will cost Montana $15 million in federal American Relief Plan Act (ARPA) funds. These funds could have been used to address the root of the problems keeping people out of the workforce, like expanding affordable housing options, increasing childcare availability, or providing job training or education opportunities. 

Instead, Montana will turn down $150 million in federal funds between July and September according The Century Foundation and put 25,000 thousand people at risk of losing their expanded benefits. These benefits will no longer be spent at Montana businesses and help boost the state’s economy. But most importantly, they will no longer help those who are unable to find suitable employment make ends meet.

Continuous Eligibility: Providing Stability During Uncertain Times.

During times of crisis, Montanans need stability. In recent months, thousands of Montanans living on low incomes have turned to Medicaid expansion to give them continuous health care coverage during a volatile job market.

Montana’s Medicaid expansion program, the HELP plan, allows recipients to maintain their eligibility for one year, even if their income fluctuates over those twelve months. This option is known as continuous eligibility. Montana has long had continuous eligibility for its Healthy Montana Kids program, providing critical health insurance coverage for Montana’s children.

During an unstable job market, continuous eligibility provides Montanans with continuity of care, as their work hours (and income) can fluctuate. Nearly 75 percent of Montana’s Medicaid recipients are working, often at jobs that are seasonal or have frequently changing schedules. With businesses opening and closing, Montanans on Medicaid need to know their health care is available, even if their incomes fluctuate.

Continuous eligibility also relieves some of the state’s administrative burden. If Medicaid recipients were forced to re-apply for their benefits more frequently, the state would likely face more recipients cycling on and off the program. This effect is known as churn and occurs when people who are still eligible for the program lose their benefits, and then must reapply shortly thereafter. Churn wastes time and money for both the state and for beneficiaries.

In 2003, the State of Washington began requiring children on Medicaid to renew eligibility every six months. As families struggled to navigate the process and provide the proper documentation, the number of children enrolled fell by 30,000 over two years. The state eventually restored 12-month eligibility, and in a year, enrollment again rose by 30,000. Continuous eligibility had previously been preventing this sort of churn of eligible individuals on and off the program.

Most Medicaid expansion recipients only need the program temporarily. The average Medicaid expansion recipient in Montana stays on the program for less than two years, and 30 percent stay on the program for less than one year. As most recipients only need the program for a short duration, a shorter eligibility period would only create unnecessary paperwork and strain for both individuals and the state.  

Not only is churn inefficient and costly for the state, but even brief gaps in health care coverage can be dangerous. Adults who have gaps in health care coverage are less likely to have a regular doctor and less likely to receive preventive care, research shows. Another study in Arkansas, Kentucky, and Texas showed that nearly half of adults who had gaps in health care coverage reported skipping doses of prescription medicine or stopped taking it all together.  

As our state begins to recover from the pandemic, Montanans should not have to worry about losing their health care coverage. A one-year eligibility period is not only more efficient for the state, but also provides Montanans the stability they need in these uncertain times.

Update: SNAP Proposed and Enacted Changes to Help Families

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has helped individuals and families keep food on their table and avoid hunger during this time of national crisis. When the pandemic and ensuing recession hit in the spring, SNAP responded swiftly. For more information about SNAP’s early response to the pandemic, see our blog post here.

But difficult times have continued for Montana families. In late January, nearly 56,000 adults in Montana lived in households reporting sometimes or often not having enough food to eat. For households with children, one in ten sometimes or often did not have enough food to eat in the past week.

Below, we break down the recent proposed and enacted changes to SNAP that can help alleviate hardship for struggling households.

PASSED LEGISLATION

In December, Congress passed a COVID relief package which included a variety of relief measures to people facing job loss, poverty, and hunger.

Change to SNAP: The COVID relief package included a 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits through June 2021.

Who this helps: Back in April, USDA granted states waivers to allow them to issue the “emergency allotments” – the maximum SNAP benefit for their household size.

But this change left out or only marginally benefited 39,000 Montanans on SNAP, including 15,000 children, who had no or extremely low any income. These families were already receiving the maximum or close to the maximum SNAP allotment, and still facing increased hardship due to the pandemic.

A 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits will result in $27 more per person. With hunger still a major problem across the country, increasing SNAP benefits for all households – especially those who are struggling the most – will help lift people out of hunger and extreme poverty.

Change to SNAP: College students who are eligible for work study or have an expected family contribution of $0 and are enrolled at least half-time in an institution are eligible for SNAP.

Who this helps: Under regular SNAP rules, only college students who were currently participating in a work study program were eligible for SNAP. With classes and schools moving to remote instruction, work study positions may be difficult to obtain for some eligible for students. This rule change will help reduce hunger for students.

EXECUTIVE ACTIONS

In January, President Biden issued several executive actions that will help relieve hunger and hardship for Montana families.

Change to SNAP: President Biden directed the USDA to increase Pandemic-Electronic Benefits Transfer (P-EBT) benefits by 15 percent.

Who this helps:  The P-EBT program provides families who would normally be receiving free and reduced-price meals at school with the equivalent dollar value ($5.70 a day) when schools are closed.

While schools have mostly re-opened across the state, many families are still facing part-time schedules and occasional school closures. An increase in P-EBT benefits would help reduce the high rates of childhood food insecurity Montana is facing right now.

Unfortunately, Montana has yet to be approved for P-EBT for the 20/21 school year. Montana should act soon to ensure that families who have been struggling with school closures can get the help they need.

Change to SNAP: President Biden directed the USDA to emergency allotments for households who were already receiving the maximum SNAP allotment.

Who this helps: As mentioned earlier, households living on extremely low incomes did not receive any increase in benefits during the first round of SNAP changes. The original stimulus plan failed to support the 37 percent of SNAP households nationwide who were already receiving the maximum allotment. Emergency allotments would help these most vulnerable households.

Change to SNAP: President Biden directed the USDA to revise the Thrifty Food Plan, as directed by the 2018 Farm Bill.

Who this helps: The Thrifty Food Plan is the basis the USDA uses to calculate SNAP benefits.  But the plan is outdated – it assumes that families have more time than they do to prepare food, that affordable food is always available, does not account for special dietary needs, and does not reflect the full cost of a healthy diet. Updating the plan will help provide more accurate benefits to households.

PROPOSED LEGISLATION

Congress is currently considering more relief packages to help aid people struggling with poverty and hunger.

Change to SNAP: President Biden’s proposed American Rescue Plan would extend the 15 percent increase in SNAP benefits through September.

Who this helps: Economic recovery from this crisis will not happen immediately. SNAP is one of our best forms of economic stimulus, by not only helping people put food on their table but by supporting local stores and the agricultural community as well.

SNAP is a vital lifeline for struggling Montanans. If we are to recover from this crisis, we must provide much ensure that everyone has access to affordable food when they need it.