Almost a year into the pandemic, and COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on the lives of Americans. The government has provided substantial but uneven efforts to shore up the safety net and use the power of public benefits to arrest the erosion of household financial security among the most impacted households—and robust debate about additional federal action to provide relief is happening right now.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which rapidly expanded from 37 million to 43 million recipients in 2020, is central to the federal government’s efforts to fight hunger and promote household financial security. Despite the key role it plays in millions of Americans’ lives, SNAP – and our entire public benefits system — is too often antiquated, complex, and designed without centering the dignity and financial security of the people who use it. Our public and private benefits systems ultimately need comprehensive reform that is people-centered and tech-enabled.
In early February 2021, Justin King sat down with Stacy Taylor, Head of Policy and Partnerships at Propel, a technology company that serves 4 million people who use SNAP each month, to understand how people receiving SNAP have fared over the past year – and to explore the messages that those people have for policymakers. Watch the interview and read an edited version of that conversation below.
Justin King: Stacy, welcome, can you tell us a little bit about Propel and how it fits into the public benefits landscape?
Stacy Taylor: Thanks, Justin. Propel is a technology company based in Brooklyn, NY. We build customer friendly technologies to bring ease and dignity to accessing government benefits as a way to improve financial health. We do that, primarily, through a tool called Fresh EBT. Fresh EBT is a smartphone app that can be downloaded and used for free on any smartphone. It allows current Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card holders–households that use food stamps or cash benefits disbursed via EBT cards–to check their benefit levels and manage their benefits.
Currently over 4 million households use Fresh EBT on a regular basis. They’re spread out all across the country, in all 50 States and all US territories.
Justin King: Who uses Fresh EBT? What does the user base look like?
Stacy Taylor: Our user base does differ slightly from the average or the typical SNAP participant in a few ways. One is households using Fresh EBT are more likely to have a higher benefit amount. Our users are more likely to be a little bit larger households, more likely to have kids in the home, and skews slightly younger and significantly towards women. So our typical user is a mom with kids at home.
Justin King: In January of this year, we published a paper on “Social Listening” — or, how governments can learn from online forums to improve their safety net policies and improve service delivery. Your company is in the unique position of being able to listen to and understand what people who use SNAP and your app are experiencing really quickly. When COVID hit, what did you hear? How did you respond?
Stacy Taylor: We have always had a practice of listening really intently to households and using that to inform our service and our product. We amped up on that right away. [W]e were hearing from households, “I need money now.” So we partnered with Give Directly and Stand for Children on a project called Project 100, in which we’ve been able to disburse over $100 million in direct cash assistance to families that use FreshEBT.
We also expanded our survey work to listen really intently to how the pandemic was impacting households in sort of a real time way to be able to change our services.
Then we realized that information was important to share with others in the field who are watching, and listening, and looking for what’s next in designing [policy]. We wanted to really use this as an opportunity to listen to households and to pass the microphone to households interacting with SNAP to elevate their voices in ways that can impact program policy and design.
Justin King: What did the survey show in the early months of the pandemic?
Stacy Taylor: In mid-March, when we started this survey, for the first time, we were hearing that one-third of our users had less than $100 to get through the next two months, whereas they are watching neighbors and friends stock up on food. The average amount of time households were expecting their next food stamp deposit was 18 days. So households were saying, “I have not been able to stock up and I’m not expecting benefits anytime soon. What am I supposed to do?”
Then we started to hear more and more about employment being impacted. By the end of March, our survey was showing that over 80% who had been employed were reporting loss in income, if not jobs lost entirely, but less than 20% had applied for Unemployment Insurance (UI). So we saw a trend of people getting hit really hard in early March, and not yet seeing access to expanded government benefits.
In May we started to hear from families that they were starting to get some relief through the government response–starting to receive the Economic Impact Payments (EIPs) and starting to apply for and receive determination letters for UI.
When we look at our trend data, they tell a similar story over the summer months, we see a deep hit that starts in April–food insecurity continues to increase through May and then starts to decrease as folks are getting access to and benefits.
We saw rates of debt accrual increase pretty dramatically at the beginning and level off, but still stay at very high levels, and we see that similar story throughout the fall.
We heard from families very specifically that the government response helped. We heard from a P-EBT participant who said “it helped us tremendously, because without SNAP and P-EBT we probably wouldn’t have food to eat, or we would have to choose between paying bills and eating.”
Justin King: How does race and structural racism show up in your survey results?
Stacy Taylor: This probably falls in the camp of things that are perhaps not necessarily surprising, but still are shocking and horrifying. The depth of hardship amongst households responding to the survey is very real. In addition, we see racial disparities across a number of areas.
For example, if we look at measures of wealth and income inequality we’re seeing a higher percentage of Black respondents report borrowing money or using credit to make it through the month. Higher percentages of Black respondents report running low on essential household needs to get through the month and a higher percentage of black households report risk of losing housing. We’re seeing disparities in access to employment, so more Black and Latinx households report a reduction in hours at their current job. More Black and Latinx households are looking for work than white households, and we see disparities in access to benefits. More white households report getting their EIPs or stimulus checks and more qualifying black households report having yet to receive P-EBT.
Justin King: What strategies are families using to cope that might be surprising?
Stacy Taylor: One of the most startling findings from our surveys, I think, is that many households report borrowing from family and friends. A majority of households report borrowing this way, and I don’t think that shows up on anybody’s ledger, it is an invisible tax. We hear that there is a cumulative effect of borrowing–there’s an emotional and financial burden of owing close relations money and then figuring out how to pay that back–and similarly figuring out how to help friends and family. So we hear,
“We emptied our savings account to help my family.”
“My family has been helped by borrowing when I need it, but I really try not to ask, because I know they are struggling.”
In our survey, borrowing from family and friends is much higher than any other type of borrowing. It’s the most common strategy that families are falling back on to make it through the month. Over 60% of households have reported borrowing from family and friends and we asked “over the last 30 days have you had to borrow?” So consistently we’re seeing between 55 and 60% of households are borrowing, higher for households who have children in the home. Of those, over 75% are borrowing from family and friends...and the vast majority of those who borrow are expected to pay that back in the near term.
Justin King: One overarching problem is that there’s not a lot of coordination between benefits, our “Social Listening” research found people experiencing a lot of confusion over what they were eligible for and when, do you see those conflicts among your users and survey respondents?
Stacy Taylor: Yes, they show up in a few different ways. First, there was confusion about how the additional $600 a week in UI would or wouldn’t impact SNAP benefits? We saw different types of enforcement or messaging about that across different states. And we heard from a handful of folks about retroactively being asked to pay back SNAP benefits because they had continued to receive them, when they were ineligible due to UI and they didn’t realize they had to report [that UI income].
I think the overall trend that we’ve heard is that it’s confusing to navigate these things and it’s very hard to not know what next month is going to look like. So we’ve heard from a lot of families saying “I know I’m getting this benefit now but I don’t know if I’m going to get it next month and I don’t know how to plan with that type of uncertainty.”
Other households ask [questions like], “I think I’m supposed to get this benefit, like P-EBT, but I’m not sure if I haven’t received it because my state has not yet disbursed it or because I somehow missed out on it and I’m not sure who to call or what steps to take?” or even, “I received my EIP, but I don’t think it was the right amount, so now what?”
Justin King: There are a lot of important messages in there for policymakers. Congress is debating what to do about more COVID relief right now, what other messages do Fresh EBT users have for policymakers?
Stacy Taylor: So we hear a lot from households on what isn’t working and what could be working better. We hear messages like:
“We need more than what we have been supplied so far.”
“We’re experiencing hardship and I don’t feel understood or seen.”
“I’ve gone months without help, and I feel like I’m digging into a hole.”
We also hear debt accrual again as a theme that comes through. But, also, that the programs that have been enacted over the last year have made a difference. And really what we hear is a need for flexible cash assistance. Households consistently report using any benefits that come in to pay for things like rent, utilities, and food. Almost always in that order. When we asked, “How did you spend your Economic Impact Payment?” The answer is “Rent, utilities, food.” When we asked, “How did you spend your cash transfer payments from Give Directly?” “Rent, utilities, food.”
To me that’s flexible cash assistance so families can get that money in the door and get it out in an efficient and quick way that is most beneficial for their family and household needs.
Justin King: What do you think your role is here in the future? Do you intend to keep surveying your users and supplying that information to the public? Do you think there’s potential for government to be moving more in the direction of capturing people’s experience and applying it to reform?
Stacy Taylor: Absolutely, you know, we would love for this to be a stopgap measure while government can put in place practices to regularly listen to customers and use that to inform design and implementation. In the interim, we’re happy to continue to listen to the households using Fresh EBT and elevate their voices, but we would love to see this become a more regular ingrained practice in every program to have this customer feedback loop.
It’s changed the way we work, and we can see already there are very particular ways that households interacting with programs on a regular basis will name the easy fixes…in addition to the trickier ones.
Share on Twitter:
Building a 21st Century #SafetyNet means listening to people using today’s systems. @AspenFSP sat down w/ @freshebt to explore the pandemic’s impact on SNAP users–and to hear their messages for policymakers. https://buff.ly/2ZHF85P
This interview is a part of the Benefits21 initiative. Benefits21 is a partnership between the Financial Security Program and the Future of Work Initiative and is developed under the Global Inclusive Growth Partnership (GIGP), a collaboration between the Aspen Institute and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth.
To view Propel’s full survey results, visit: www.joinpropel.com/covid-19
To learn more about the Aspen Institute Financial Security Program’s work, visit AspenFSP.org, follow @AspenFSP on Twitter, or sign up for our newsletter at http://bit.ly/fspnewsletter.