SC families set to lose extra federal food aid after COVID emergency order stops

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Starting in August, South Carolina families getting extra food assistance from the federal government because of COVID-19 are set to lose that relief after Gov. Henry McMaster announced Monday his decision not to extend the state’s state of emergency order.

That means about 295,000 households — representing about 610,000 people, all who get food benefits now through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — will lose out on average about $177 a month received in added emergency food assistance from the federal government, allocated by the state Department of Social Services.

On Monday, McMaster announced he would no longer extend the emergency orders for COVID-19 but asked South Carolinians to still heed health protocols and take the virus seriously that has contributed to the deaths of more than 9,000 people. At that same press briefing, the governor told reporters his decision would not impact federal aid coming to the state.

Brian Symmes, the governor’s spokesman, said Thursday that McMaster’s decision to end the state of emergency was “thoughtfully considered and discussed among all state agencies that have had a role in the state’s response to the pandemic.”

“Like federal unemployment benefits, the additional emergency SNAP benefit program was never meant to be a permanent fixture,” Symmes said. “The governor is confident that the normal, pre-pandemic SNAP program is the best way to move forward for South Carolina.”

South Carolina is now one of a small handful of states no longer under a state of emergency because of COVID-19.

But federal policy requires that the national public health emergency declaration coupled with a state-issued emergency or disaster declaration must be in place to qualify for the emergency food assistance, the state’s Social Services Director Michael Leach said.

The emergency aid will continue through June, and the agency will ask the federal government to run the relief through July as the state’s “transition” month, Leach added.

By Aug. 1, families, children, the disabled and elderly residents who get that additional bump in food assistance will go back to getting their regular monthly benefit, a household average of about $261, according to social services.

Advocates, however, are hoping for a potential work-around to keep the emergency food relief to flowing to accounts.

In Alaska, for example, after the governor there ended the state’s COVID-19 emergency order, the state’s health and social services director sent the federal government a more narrow declaration to keep the state eligible for federal assistance. Wisconsin also took a similar approach.

“Making sure people have access to these benefits is really critical,” said Sue Berkowitz, director of South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center. “Some people haven’t been able to get employment, or had to take a lesser paying jobs. People are still struggling.”