Pandemic Overpayments Causing Greater Hardship for Low-Income Families

February 2023

An East Tennessee family of four applied for SNAP during the pandemic when they struggled to put food on the table for their two children. They were approved by DHS to receive the maximum SNAP benefit for a family of four but are now required to pay back over $5,000. Several months after the State approved the family to receive SNAP benefits, they determined that they were not eligible. Now as they continue to struggle to afford food, they also have outstanding debt that the State could waive but has decided not to. The maximum SNAP benefit was an essential stimulus provided to families more money to pay for food, but because DHS has opted not to take the USDA waivers to forgive pandemic overpayments, some families are facing extremely high debt and financial hardship. DHS can and should waive any unintentional SNAP overpayments during COVID-19 so that families can continue to recover from pandemic economic hardships and rising prices due to record high inflation.

The federal government has allowed states to waive pandemic overpayments, given the confluence of challenges that likely caused state agencies to over and under-issue benefits to SNAP families. Furthermore, charging overpayment fines to families who already struggle from the financial, physical and emotional toll brought on by the pandemic will cause further economic distress. The overpayments that families are facing are extremely high because of the higher pandemic benefits that families received. The federal government authorized states to give SNAP families the maximum benefit for their household size in response to the COVID-19 pandemic sometimes increasing benefits by hundreds of dollars for larger households. This was a much-needed boost to families’ monthly food budgets while their children were home from school and many jobs were lost. In many cases the over issuance of SNAP benefits to families resulted from challenge the pandemic presented and are not necessarily the fault of State Agencies, applicants or participating households. Low-income families in Tennessee should not bear the burden of those mistakes. The State should opt into the USDA pandemic overpayment waivers and ease the increased burden they have placed on families by issuing overpayments. If you’ve been affected by pandemic-era SNAP overpayments, share your story with us here.