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Beyond unemployment: How COVID-19 is affecting assistance programs throughout Minnesota

State government, county officials and nonprofit organizations have seen a significant increase in people needing help paying for food, housing and other daily costs.

In Hennepin County, applications to SNAP were up 12 percent in April compared to the same month in 2019.

Gov. Tim Walz’s restrictions on businesses during the COVID-19 pandemic have had a profound economic impact in Minnesota, causing more than 710,000 people to apply for unemployment benefits since March 16. The Twin Cities metro area alone was down more than 270,000 jobs in April compared to April of 2019.

But the fallout from COVID-19 hasn’t just affected employment. There has also been an increase in need for help paying for food, housing and other daily costs in Minnesota. One way to measure this increase is through calls to a statewide 211 helpline run by the Greater Twin Cities United Way. That organization has seen an explosion in the number of people needing assistance.

Hennepin County, on the other hand, has had only a modest influx in applications for cash aid like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps people buy groceries. While the county is bracing for greater need down the road, it’s even reporting something peculiar: a decrease in April applications for short-term, emergency assistance programs.

Huge spikes in 211 help calls

The United Way runs a free 211 helpline for people to call in seeking aid to meet their basic needs. When a person calls, texts, or chats online with 211 operators, they can get a referral for what service could best help them, including government aid programs.

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Between March 16 and May 16, There was a 395 percent increase in referrals for food help over the same period in 2019. (Demand has also spiked at food shelves.) Utility referrals were up 153 percent and healthcare referrals jumped 85 percent.

There was also a 109 percent increase in referrals for clothing and household goods, which Julie Ogunleye, who leads the United Way’s 211 information and referral program, said includes cleaning supplies and hygiene needs like toilet paper.

Julie Ogunleye
Julie Ogunleye
Housing makes up about 30 percent of 211 calls each year, Ongunleye said, and those referrals have also seen a significant increase: Between March 16 and May 16 this year, 211 operators referred 11,259 people with housing needs, nearly twice as many referrals compared to the same period in 2019.

Ogunleye said they’re watching for an even larger increase once Walz’s statewide eviction moratorium is lifted. The United Way didn’t have data to compare the need for services and help to the Great Recession, but Ogunleye said that economic downturn was “more of a slow moving disaster.”

Subsidy applications rise, but don’t soar

The state Department of Human Services had limited early data on how the pandemic is driving the need for Minnesota’s most common forms of assistance. But average daily applications to SNAP rose from 394 in late February to 543 in late March.

Between March and April, 64,000 people were added to SNAP, a larger jump in participation compared to the first two months of the year, according to DHS. In 2019, the state averaged 400,000 total monthly recipients.

Daily applications to the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), a cash assistance program for low-income families with children, rose from 60 in late February to 116 during mid-to-late March. And daily applications were already rising to SNAP and MFIP, both of which are administered by county and tribal governments, before the pandemic. 

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In Hennepin County, applications to SNAP were up 12 percent in April compared to the same month in 2019, while applications for cash assistance like MFIP were up 10 percent in March and April compared to 2019.

MFIP helps low-income families with children get cash and food benefits. The cash help is dependent on the size of a family, though state lawmakers boosted the monthly payment by $100 in 2019, the first time it had been raised in 33 years.

Caseload for health care programs like Medicaid were up from 92,500 to 100,200 since March. In April 2019, the health care caseload was 92,390.

Applications for emergency assistance — which includes programs that give short-term cash aid to people in financial crises, typically for housing needs like rent, mortgage and utility payments, home repairs, emergency temporary shelter and foreclosure prevention — were up 10 percent in March compared to 2019. But in April, applications actually declined by 5 percent compared to the same period last year.

Jason Hedin, the county’s human services area manager, said the 10 percent spike across programs in March and April has also “come back down” to at or below year over year trends.

The modest increase in applications has been surprising, Hedin said. But he added the state and federal aid — such as the extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits and $1,200 cash payment for most Americans — might be the reason there hasn’t been a bigger spike in applications for these cash help programs. The moratorium on evictions and promises from utility companies to avoid shutting off services during the pandemic could also be preventing greater need, Hedin said.

The jump during March and April was still notable and higher than any typical seasonal fluctuation, Hedin said. And caseloads in the programs had been fairly even in the previous six months. But the dip in emergency assistance applications was still unexpected, Hedin said.

“We know there’s been an influx of other funding sources,” Hedin said. “In other sorts of economic downturns there maybe wasn’t as many.”

In Ramsey County, spokesman Chris Burns said applications to SNAP and MFIP have been fluctuating, and said it’s hard to get a full picture of trends caused by COVID-19. Preliminary data shows fewer approved SNAP applications in March of 2020 than March of 2019, though the information may be incomplete based on lag in how it’s recorded.

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Still, Burns and Hedin said the early numbers may give way to a jump in need once federal payments and moratoriums on bills start to end. “Given the current situation with job losses, we anticipate that the eventual trend will be more need for assistance,” Burns said.

If the extra unemployment payments expire, “will that then cause another increase or a spike in applications for the programs that we’re administering here?” Hedin said.