Although Florida’s Reemployment Assistance program (RA) is failing to meet the immediate needs of workers who have lost jobs due to COVID-19, other safety net programs in the Sunshine State are rising to the occasion.
Since the public health emergency was issued, Medicaid and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have helped keep Floridians afloat until their RA claims are finally processed and the economy reopens. In March 2020, when COVID-19 began to wreak havoc on the economy, Floridians filed 264,201 new safety net applications, primarily for SNAP and Medicaid. This represented an increase of 55 percent in requests for assistance. In April 2020, applications were up by more than 154 percent from the previous month.
In turn, SNAP participation in Florida has risen by almost 22 percent to date and the number of people turning to Medicaid is at its highest in over a year. By May 1, SNAP and Medicaid caseloads will have expanded even more as assistance requests from families who only recently applied are processed. And, as Florida emerges from the public health crisis, the need for SNAP and Medicaid will continue during the long process of economic recovery.
The increase in SNAP and Medicaid participation during the pandemic is no surprise. Charities and other nonprofits, who are barely able to meet the needs of struggling Floridians as it is, are ill-equipped to take up the slack, especially during widespread unemployment caused by COVID-19. But SNAP and Medicaid are doing exactly what they were intended to do: support Floridians in the tough times while families get back on their feet.
Sadly, Florida's safety net also has big holes. Based on job loss due to the pandemic, a new study projects that the number of uninsured non-elderly Floridians could rise an additional 403,000 to 759,000. Thousands of these newly uninsured individuals could get coverage if Florida expanded its Medicaid program. Yet to date, policymakers have refused to expand Medicaid, leaving too many Florida families without needed care or facing unaffordable medical bills.
In addition, although Florida issued emergency SNAP supplements to many current participants under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, roughly half a million Floridians were left out of this relief — because despite having unexpected expenses, these families were ineligible for a supplement because their income is so low that they already receive the maximum SNAP benefit. Until the economy recovers, Congress should temporarily increase the maximum benefit for everyone participating in SNAP by 15 percent. Although this would only increase SNAP benefits by about $25 per person per month, providing additional money through SNAP would give Floridians breathing room to pay their bills and still put food on the table.
The recent uptick in Medicaid and SNAP participation during COVID-19 underscores the importance of safety net programs for families who walk the tightrope after a family crisis or statewide disaster. While many Floridians never expect they will have to apply for assistance in order to afford going to the doctor or filling their kitchen pantry, these programs are a lifeline when the unexpected happens.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that when friends and neighbors are struggling for whatever reason, safety net initiatives like SNAP and Medicaid are designed to respond quickly and efficiently. This is a lesson that Floridians should not forget. When faced with an unexpected disaster, pandemic, or economic downturn, families can use SNAP and Medicaid to obtain the resources needed to weather the storm.