29 April 2021
This report examines how the pandemic and related economic downturn affected the need for safety net supports; actions states are taking to mitigate the immense hardship the pandemic has caused; implications for racial equity; and challenges, opportunities, and questions facing state leaders as of April 2021. Drawing on interviews with experts on state budgets, governance, and safety net programs between December 2020 and February 2021, and other sources, we examine the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and other food assistance programs; housing assistance; Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash assistance; child care; and Medicaid and other health programs. We find that although the timing and depth of the crisis has varied by state, with significant federal help, most states’ situations are now improving. To mitigate the pandemic’s effects, states have, for example, used federal flexibilities to improve access to food assistance; provided emergency rental assistance and established moratoria on evictions and utility shut-offs; implemented online and telephone application and case management systems to help people access cash assistance and other supports remotely; adjusted policies to ensure child care providers can remain in business; and used federal flexibilities to safeguard coverage of Medicaid enrollees, support health care providers, and improve access to telehealth. Following passage of the American Rescue Plan and improved health and economic situations, states now face crucial questions about how to equitably and efficiently spend the large and temporary influx of federal relief funds; address the racial and ethnic disparities and economic inequality that have worsened during the pandemic; prepare for an uncertain future; and determine which investments or innovations of policy and practice to carry forward beyond the pandemic.