Food security advocates said Thursday that Gov. Kevin Stitt's ending of Oklahoma's declared state of emergency amid the COVID-19 pandemic means as many as 168,000 Oklahomans could soon see an abrupt drop-off in nutrition benefit payments.
"The Biden administration has enabled SNAP emergency allotments, which would be an additional benefit to Oklahomans who earn under 115% of the federal poverty level," said Bailey Perkins, state advocacy and public policy director at Oklahoma Food Banks, referring to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps).
"In order for states to unlock that, they have to have an emergency order in place. Since Gov. Stitt ended the executive order this week, that means we have about 60 days for Oklahomans who were receiving that benefit to get it, and after that they lose that benefit," Perkins said of the approaching June 30 termination date.
"The SNAP emergency allotments alone, on average, have brought in $31 million a month for Oklahoma since March of 2020," said Jessica Dietrich, policy and government relations manager at nonprofit Hunger Free Oklahoma.
"That piece of the benefits is specifically what will go away as of July," Dietrich said. "That's $31 million less that's circulating in our economy and helping support local grocery stores and jobs and allowing people more flexibility in their other funds to be able to purchase essentials for their households."
Dietrich said emergency declaration or not, the negative economic effects of the pandemic are far from over, especially for many lower-income Oklahomans who rely on benefits such as SNAP.
"History shows us that people recover at different rates," Dietrich said. "Not everyone recovers from a disaster like this at the same rate. So while others may be back to their normal, pre-pandemic income levels and work activities, not everyone is experiencing that same rate of recovery."
Dietrich and Perkins said they were having conversations with the governor's office and the state Department of Human Services (OKDHS) to see if anything could be done to taper off the benefit or otherwise extend it, but acknowledged the language of the federal program does not allow for states to do that on their own without action from Washington.
Keili McEwen, communications director at OKDHS, said they are in touch with the federal government about the matter.
"We, first of all, care first and foremost about the people that we serve and understand that this will be a shift for them in terms of benefits they've received during the pandemic, and that's why we wanted to make this announcement as early as possible so we could give them time to prepare," McEwen said.
"We are having conversations with our federal partners about any potential waiver or phase-out, but at this time the regulation is as written, and we aren't aware of anything that would allow us to do anything differently other than just to end the emergency allotment program on June 30th," McEwen said.
In a Tuesday statement announcing the change, OKDHS director and Oklahoma Secretary of Human Services Justin Brown said, "We are thankful for the support of our federal partners, as well as the efforts of our Governor, legislature and state and community partners to support Oklahomans through the COVID-19 crisis. As our lives begin to return to normal and the economy rebuilds, OKDHS is committed to continuing our work to build HOPE and provide help for those who need us most. Our brightest days are ahead!"
In the same news release, Stitt said, "COVID-19 is no longer a state of emergency in Oklahoma. I am grateful for Secretary Brown’s tireless work to assist Oklahoma families, and share his commitment to a smooth transition back to pre-COVID protocols. Thanks to the decision to reopen our economy last June, businesses are thriving and employers across the state are ready to expand, so I encourage Oklahomans to not live in fear, to return to work, and to return to normal."
Reached Thursday, a spokesperson for the governor did not indicate any plans to change course regarding the emergency declaration but noted that a separate increase in SNAP benefits through President Biden's American Rescue Plan will be in effect through September.
Dietrich and Perkins said SNAP recipients -- the majority of whom are employed, as required in most instances to qualify for the assistance -- may have to more heavily rely on resources like food banks and soup kitchens if their benefits do end up being cut, placing more burden on a support system already strained from increased need during the pandemic.
"One concern that we have is that if we don't find a solution, typically when resources stop coming into our state, we see a rise in the need for food assistance," Perkins said.
On a Thursday press call to discuss the president's proposed American Families Plan, Carmel Martin of the White House Domestic Policy Council said she was unsure if there were any components of the already-passed American Rescue Plan that could assist Oklahoma families who lose the emergency allotments, but that the Families Plan includes additional nutrition assistance that may be of help to them if the package becomes law.
Perkins said Oklahomans in need of help feeding themselves and their families can contact the Community Food Bank of Eastern Oklahoma online at their website or by phone at (918) 585-2800.
Dietrich encouraged families currently receiving SNAP benefits to contact OKDHS to make sure their information on file is current, and said parents of children who attend school should contact their school districts for information regarding free meals.