As the coronavirus continues to sicken hundreds of people in Washington state, more individuals and families in dire financial situations are applying for services to cover their basic needs, state data shows. 

The number of low-income Washingtonians applying for state and federally-funded food- and cash-assistance programs more than doubled between March and early April, according to data from the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

Higher demand for these programs could result in a clash in the months to come as advocates strive to increase access to benefits while legislators look to balance the state’s precarious finances during an economic downturn. 

The new numbers of applications were “stunning,” said labor economist and University of Washington professor Marieka Klawitter. 

The numbers show that thousands of people lack the means to cover essentials during the crisis. 

“The unemployment, the stimulus checks, the small business [assistance] will help people, but there are still going to be gaps,” Klawitter said.

The Seattle Times’ Project Homeless is funded by BECU, The Bernier McCaw Foundation, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Campion Foundation, the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Schultz Family Foundation, Seattle Foundation, Starbucks and the University of Washington. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over Project Homeless content.

Babs Roberts, director of the Community Services Division at DSHS, said her staff saw an influx of new applications as soon as Gov. Jay Inslee announced new limits on public gatherings and the shutdown of restaurants and bars the week of March 16.

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“This was like a spigot turned on,” Roberts said. 

The rush of new applications coincided with staff moving out of their offices and into home telework, Roberts said. It took about two weeks to work out the kinks, shift staff to the call center and decrease call-waiting times, she said.

The number of weekly applications for the federally-funded Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) and the state’s Food Assistance Program for Legal Immigrants increased by 168% between early March and the beginning of April — from nearly 8,000 applications the week of March 2 to nearly 21,000 applications the week of April 6.

Applications for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and State Family Assistance grants more than doubled during the same time period, growing from 1,193 applications at the beginning of March to more than 3,000 in early April. Applications for the state’s Aged, Blind or Disabled (ABD) cash assistance and Housing and Essential Needs programs swelled by 66%. 

The state’s TANF caseloads, which are funded through a federal block grant and some required state dollars, have been declining since 2011, when the program saw major cuts and new restrictions on cash assistance. During the coronavirus pandemic, however, some of those restrictions have loosened, including the time limit on assistance and suspensions over work requirements.

“Advocates have really been working basically since 2011-2012 to get the program back,” said Marcy Bowers, executive director of the Statewide Poverty Action Network. “Including doing a bunch of things that were done with a stroke of a pen in response to this crisis.” 

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But the increased demand for government assistance also confronts a harsh economic reality looming for the state budget. With sales and business and occupation tax revenues likely hit by the coronavirus shutdown, legislators are anticipating tough calls on how to balance the budget. 

DSHS was already operating on a lean budget after Great Recession era cuts, said University of Washington associate professor and West Coast Poverty Center director Jennie Romich. And social-service programs are often some of the first to see the ax during tough economic times.

“Going forward, I’m very concerned about whether we’re going to be forced to do that again,” Romich said. “Because I think the nature of this crisis and the size of this crisis shows how important it is to have social services there when we need it.” 

The state already vetoed funding for several line items approved in the latest supplemental budget to prepare for ongoing coronavirus costs. The Office of Financial Management (OFM) also sent letters to state agencies “telling them to be ready for budget cuts, that we had to find savings, that you had to be careful with any new hiring,” OFM director David Schumacher said. 

“There’s only so many things that can be cut, which puts tremendous pressure on the things that are discretionary,” Schumacher said. 

Rep. Drew Stokesbary, of Auburn, the ranking Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, said he anticipates hard conversations about cost-cutting in the months ahead. 

“This is probably going to be one of our biggest challenges,” Stokesbary said. “Everybody will want to help those in need, but the simple fact is that the state lacks the financial capacity that the federal government has.”

But advocates hope that many of the pandemic-era reforms to social-service programs will stick. 

“I firmly believe the reason we create a safety net is to catch people when they fall on hard times,” Bowers, of the Statewide Poverty Action Network, said. “While I think this will be expensive to the state, I think it puts back in place a net that should never have been taken away from people.” 

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