As Tennessee families brace for the loss of federal unemployment supplements, the state could forfeit an estimated $60 million in federal funds allocated to help low-income parents purchase food for their children.
The program, Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer, or P-EBT, was created earlier this year through the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act as a way to reimburse families whose children are on the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s free or reduced lunch program, but who could not receive those meals once schools shut down.
In Tennessee, families can receive around $250 per child to cover the cost of meals missed at school in March, April and May. The money, deposited on a payment card, can be spent at grocery stores and places where EBT cards are currently accepted.
While households already enrolled in food stamps or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families were to automatically receive the $250 payments on their existing EBT cards, Tennessee families on free or reduced lunch not enrolled in the other two welfare programs are required to pass an additional application process before receiving P-EBT funds.
Many other states, including some of Tennessee’s conservative neighbors, have waived the application process and, through school records, sent P-EBT cards directly to families whose children receive reduced-price meals.
Due to challenges the state has faced getting the parents of all 388,000 children who aren’t on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or TANF but are on reduced lunch to apply for the P-EBT program, Tennessee is on track to leave roughly $60 million in federal funds on the table.
The Tennessee Department of Human Services, which is handling applications for the program, has until Sept. 30 to distribute the funds, per Congress. The department, however, has set a deadline of Aug. 14 for families to apply for P-EBT.
Based on how many eligible families have not yet applied to receive the money, as much as $62 million worth of benefits won’t be distributed in Tennessee. Additional families will likely apply for P-EBT by mid-August.
“It’s just difficult to understand why we have this problem that other states don’t have,” said Gordon Bonnyman, attorney for the Tennessee Justice Center, which is one of 15 organizations that signed a letter July 1 to Gov. Bill Lee and Tennessee’s human services and education commissioners asking them to change the process.
“When we’re citing Mississippi, Alabama, the Carolinas, this is just something that’s completely difficult to understand,” Bonnyman said, referring to states the advocacy group has pointed to as examples of those not requiring an additional application process for families to receive the funds.
According to the Food Research and Action Center, a national nonprofit focused on poverty and hunger, Tennessee is one of 17 states that requires an application for the P-EBT program. Almost every state is taking part in the program, the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports.
In a statement, DHS spokesman Sky Arnold said state officials believe an application process for P-EBT “reduces the risk of fraud” and helps get the cards to the correct addresses. He noted that qualifying SNAP and TANF recipients automatically received the funds.
“For the remaining potentially eligible families, the application is intended to verify addresses and family information so that the Tennessee Department of Human Services can ensure children are matched to eligibility criteria and to ensure P-EBT benefits are provided to families accurately,” Arnold said in a statement.
DHS did not elaborate on what eligibility criteria, other than qualifying for free or reduced meals, is in place to determine who can receive reimbursement for the missed meals.
The department over the last five years has forfeited hundreds of millions of federal funds that could have been distributed to families to pay for child care, but were ultimately redistributed to other states after Tennessee failed to use them.
Advocates say state should automatically send cards to qualifying families
Critics of the state’s management of the program note that DHS already knows where most families live who would qualify for the program, because the department sent them mailers encouraging them to apply online for P-EBT funds. Arnold said mailers were sent to households for whom DHS had “reliable mailing addresses.”
Bonnyman said the letters sent out prove the state knows which families should be receiving the one-time federal funds, and has wasted time and resources by requiring that parents — some of whom don’t have access to a computer or internet — go through an online application process first.
“Just send them the cards,” Bonnyman said. “Don’t make them and the state go through a process of signing up for it when they already know who (the families) are.”
He noted that all of the children were already deemed eligible for these types of benefits when their guardians applied for them to receive reduced-price school meals.
In North Carolina, school officials announced that in some cases, wrong name and address data were pulled when the state automatically sent out P-EBT cards to qualifying families. The state used physical addresses rather than mailing addresses on file, as well as the name of an emergency contact rather than the parent’s name, in addition to other issues.
Of the 388,000 Tennessee children eligible to receive the funds who are not on SNAP or TANF, only 139,000, or 35%, have been approved. DHS has denied around 850 applications for P-EBT.
The United Way, Second Harvest Food Bank, Mid-South Food Bank and other nonprofits have joined the Tennessee Justice Center and the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition in urging the state to make the process easier for families to receive the additional food money before time runs out.
The Department of Education did not respond to a request for comment about the program. Lee spokesperson Gillum Ferguson on Wednesday said the governor’s office supports keeping the current application system in place.
Parents are struggling to get their hands on P-EBT cards
Fallion Wade, a single mother in Memphis, is among the parents who have applied and been approved for the program but are awaiting a card in the mail. Wade said she received noticed July 2 that her application was approved, but by the end of the month was still waiting to receive the benefits.
In addition to her 7-year-old son, Wade’s brother and his 10-year-old son also live in the home, and both boys are in the free or reduced meal program. They’ve been unable to successfully apply for P-EBT for the older child, Wade said.
In the spring, Wade would pick up meals for the children distributed at the school each day, though that program has stopped in the summer, she said, in place of a weekly box of grocery staples that she relies on.
Parents have left hundreds of comments on DHS’s Facebook posts expressing frustration over the wait time to receive a P-EBT card, pending applications and other issues with the process.
The justice center has fielded calls from more than 1,000 parents asking questions about and requesting help with securing P-EBT funds, including from SNAP families who did not receive the funds automatically, as they should have.
The deadline to apply, originally set for June 29, was extended by DHS three times as the agency has continued to try to encourage more families to apply. In addition to sending mailers, Arnold said the agency has run radio ads in an effort to get the word out.
Texas, another state requiring a P-EBT application, has also extended its deadline until later in August as it struggles to get more families to apply for the program.
Frances Cunningham, a single mother of two children in Trenton, said the P-EBT funds have been a relief this summer. Cunningham relies on disability payments as her family’s source of income and isn’t on food stamps.
Before receiving the P-EBT card, Cunningham said her two children were primarily eating cereal for breakfast and peanut butter sandwiches and water for lunch. One church in town has a food bank where she could go once a week to pick up groceries.
Since receiving the P-EBT money, around $500 for the two children, Cunningham has bought things like orange juice, milk and sausage for their breakfast and she has been able to offer give her kids fruit.
Cunningham proudly posted a photo to Facebook of her 7th-grade daughter eating a slice of watermelon.
“To eat healthy, it costs a lot of money,” Cunningham said. “With the price of food that’s been going up, it’s a struggle.”
P-EBT applications can be submitted on DHS’s website until 4:30 p.m. Aug. 14. Applications in Spanish, Somali and Arabic can also be downloaded and submitted.
Reach Natalie Allison at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @natalie_allison.
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