March 16, 2020

Preparing for Coronavirus: Thousands of At-Risk Floridians in Safety Net Programs Face Hardship

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommend that persons living in the United States create a household plan to protect their families against COVID-19 infection in the event of an outbreak. For persons who are at greater risk for serious complications from the coronavirus, CDC advises even more rigorous preparations.

The most challenging hurdle that Floridians with moderate income face in complying with CDC’s guidance is finding CDC-recommended items on empty store shelves. Families with low income, on the other hand, face much bigger hurdles that make adequate preparation difficult, if not impossible.

Even before having to buy additional disinfectants, medical supplies, and non-perishable goods, many families are struggling each month to meet all of their needs. This is especially true for thousands of at-risk participants in Florida’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), who cannot afford the additional expense related to COVID-19 prep without significant sacrifice, if at all. 

Who Does CDC Say is Most at Risk of Complications From COVID-19?

CDC warns that people who are older or who have serious long-term health problems are most at risk for getting very sick from COVID-19. This includes many of the 585,000 low-income seniors and 300,000 persons with disabilities in the Sunshine State who participate in the SNAP program, as well as grandparents who are caregivers for 21,000  children receiving TANF assistance in Florida, few of whom have disposable income or food assistance to ready their families for an outbreak of COVID-19.

What Precautions Does CDC suggest?

To minimize risk of exposure and protect patients and their families, CDC suggests, among other things, that persons at high risk disinfect their home and stock up on non-perishable food items, medication, and necessary medical supplies. If a household member becomes sick from COVID-19, CDC says that persons at home should isolate themselves in a specific room, use a separate bathroom, if available, institute a special disinfecting regimen, and wear a facemask when interacting with  family members. CDC also warns persons who get COVID-19 not to go to work.

Why is Preparing for COVID-19 Hard for Families Participating in Safety Net Programs?

The TANF program provides temporary cash assistance to help households with very low income take care of their children while the family gets back on their feet. Of the 58,000 children receiving TANF assistance in Florida, 21,000  are  cared for by grandparents, many of whom are at greater risk for coronavirus based on age alone. These are grandparents who take in their grandchildren after their own children, for whatever reason, are unable care for them.

The good news for TANF participants, most of whom receive medical assistance, is that Florida’s Medicaid program has announced that it will pay for medically necessary testing and treatment of COVID-19.  However, even without the additional cost of COVID-19 preparation, TANF benefits in Florida are insufficient to address a child’s basic needs. Despite inflation, the Sunshine State has not raised TANF benefit levels since 1992. The maximum TANF benefit for families in Florida — $303 for a family of three — is only about 17 percent of the poverty level, which is already too low to keep a roof over a child’s head, pay the light bill, and buy school clothes, much less pay to stock up on coronavirus-related supplies and food. On top of that, many TANF families do not have homes or apartments large enough to designate separate living spaces or bathrooms for sick family members.

Most TANF participants in Florida also receive SNAP. The SNAP program provides food assistance to low-income households who need help putting food on the table. In Florida, 585,000 seniors and 300,000 persons with disabilities — all potentially at risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19 —participate in the SNAP program. Although SNAP is extremely effective at reducing food insecurity, the SNAP benefit is not high enough for participating families to buy extra, non-perishable items to prepare for a COVID-19 outbreak. The average SNAP benefit in the Sunshine State is only $1.37 per person per meal.

In addition, although many SNAP participants are employed, they are likely to work at low-wage jobs such as  home health aides, salesclerks, and servers at restaurants.  These are not jobs that have paid sick leave, allow employees to telecommute, or offer any of the benefits that accompany higher-wage employment.  Taking a sick day means missing a paycheck, which is not an option for many families participating in SNAP.  Moreover, low-income Floridians are less likely to own cars or telecommute. meaning they are more likely to rely on public transportation to get to work or run ordinary household errands, which could put them in close contact with others who may be infected.

What Can Be Done?

The Florida Legislature should revisit TANF benefit levels through the lens of disaster recovery. Until lawmakers raise TANF benefits, thousands of Floridians will be unable to take adequate precautions against the spread of coronavirus, or in the wake of any other disaster. Not only does inadequate preparation affect participating families, it also affects everyone in their communities.

Whether it’s a natural disaster or a public health crisis, struggling families need adequate resources to help them stay on their feet.

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