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The Fight for SNAP Benefits in Tennessee

During the Federal Public Health Emergency declared for COVID-19, which ended May 11, 2023, many people applied for and received SNAP benefits for the first time. For many, this program was vital to their ability to feed their families during such a difficult time. Now, Tennessee's Department of Human Services (T-DHS) is demanding that SNAP recipients pay back benefits that the agency mistakenly approved and overpaid to families during the pandemic. USDA created a waiver that allows states to forgive these overpayments, costing the states nothing, reducing the administrative burden on TDHS, and keeping people from having to repay money they do not have. Tennessee, however, has chosen not to adopt this waiver.

 

Gerald ("Jerry") Miller is one such Tennessean in Morgan County who is being asked to pay back thousands of dollars. Jerry applied for SNAP benefits at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic and was approved to receive benefits by T-DHS. He complied with all rules and followed all instructions laid out by T-DHS. Between his SNAP benefits and his Disability benefits, Jerry was able to support himself.

 

After about a year, Jerry's SNAP benefits were terminated because T-DHS determined that he had too much income to receive SNAP and are now asking him to pay back $3100 that they had originally approved him to receive. As he continues to struggle to afford food, T-DHS currently has a lawsuit open against Jerry to claw back money that the agency had originally determined he was eligible to receive.

 

Losing access to SNAP has caused Jerry serious financial issues. "I'm struggling every day to keep food in my stomach," says Jerry. He uses a food voucher available to him through his insurance to stay fed. He tries to access food pantries near him, but because they are few and far between and often open only during his working hours, he is generally unable to access them. Jerry needs SNAP benefits to afford food and remain healthy.

 

"I wish I was able to keep the food stamps because I never thought I'd be struggling this hard," says Jerry. "The ones out here working that are trying to do the right thing are the ones being harmed by this. These policies need to be governed in the right way." Jerry's court date for the SNAP overpayment suit against him will determine if he is able to get his SNAP benefits reinstated. The state of Tennessee could opt into the overpayment waiver offered by USDA to prevent Tennesseans like Jerry from going hungry and having to pay back money they don’t have. Instead, they continue to make low-income Tennesseans pay for the mistakes T-DHS made when determining SNAP eligibility.

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