Demand for Social Assistance Programs Spiked Early in Crisis and Remains Elevated

August 12, 2020

COVID-19’s public health and economic impacts have grown in parallel since about mid-March, leading to increased demand for social services and public assistance programs. Many public agencies are scrambling to meet this growing demand while at least partially administering these critical programs through new remote systems, so for them making real-time data available has been an understandable challenge. One way to get a sense for how much greater this need is, though, is by analyzing the volume of calls made to the state’s 211 call center, which is administered by the United Way. The call center connects people with public or private programs that can answer their questions or fill their needs—ranging from help applying for rental assistance to finding addiction support services.

The graph above compares week to week changes in call volumes for the period covering the onset of the COVID crisis in 2020 with the equivalent period in 2019. The selected areas saw some of the largest increases as compared to 2019. Notably, though all of these subject areas have seen growth from 2019 to 2020, growth in 211 calls about healthcare issues unrelated to COVID-19 have an inverted relationship to calls in the other subject areas. As the pandemic grew in March and April, non-pandemic related healthcare largely shut down. Consequently, it appears that fewer residents sought out medical advice. As more of the state’s healthcare systems re-open, we see an increase in calls to 211 seeking information about healthcare more generally – even as other subject areas have begun to revert to around 2019’s call volumes.

Most of the calls to the state’s 211 center came during the early weeks of the outbreak, as residents struggled to respond to the COVID-19 crisis and find support – food, housing, unemployment insurance - for the situations in which they suddenly found themselves. As people became more accustomed to life during the pandemic, calls gradually decreased. That trend has begun to reverse however. As COVID-19 cases began to increase in the rest of the country, and as Massachusetts’ own case numbers begin to go up again, we’re once more seeing increasing calls to MA’s 211 center.

Applications for State Public Assistance Programs

The state has also released data on applications received for state-administered public assistance programs. Demand for these programs tends to increase as families face greater economic hardship. In the weeks preceding the emergency declaration here in Massachusetts, applications for these programs hovered at a little over 5,000 per week. As the COVID crisis took root over the course of March, applications surged. Many people lost work and applications for these three key programs—the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) and Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC)—totaled over 20,000 per week by the end of March. During April and May, new applications for these programs fell from the March peak, but new applications for assistance are again on the rise as of late July.

SNAP is by far the largest of these programs. It functions as an entitlement, meaning that the federal government must provide necessary food support to all families that meet eligibility qualifications. Recent federal recovery efforts have expanded SNAP in several ways in order to help this critical food support go further:

  • Congress appropriated an additional $16 billion to help cover the surge in SNAP applications nationwide. Congress also created a new Pandemic EBT program, which automatically adds an extra $28.50 per week to the Electronic Benefits Transfer card of any family with school-aged children who qualify for free and reduced-price school meals. The state uses EBT cards for delivering food and economic assistance to families receiving SNAP, TAFDC and EAEDC.
  • States now have flexibility to increase the level of support many households receive, providing all families the maximum benefit for their household size. Massachusetts has taken advantage of this flexibility. In 2019, for instance, a family of three could receive a maximum monthly benefit of $505 but the average benefit was about $365. This new provision will temporarily give all families the full maximum.
  • The Department of Agriculture is providing Pandemic EBT for households with children who receive free and reduced-price lunch at schools that are now closed. This additional assistance will be available for students in low-income households that receive SNAP and those that do not already receive nutritional assistance.
  • Work requirements are waived for SNAP during the pandemic.

Transitional Aid to Families with Dependent Children (TAFDC) is administered by Massachusetts under the federal Transitional Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) block grant. It is not an entitlement and so funding is limited. The federal response to COVID-19 has not included any provisions around TANF thus far. However, there are state policy proposals for boosting TAFDC payments here in Massachusetts.

Emergency Aid to the Elderly, Disabled and Children (EAEDC) is a state program that delivers aid to people in Massachusetts who are disabled or caring for a disabled person, elderly, or children who are unable to receive TAFDC aid.