Administrative barriers are holding up social safety net funds like SNAP and WIC from reaching Americans in need as expiring benefits threaten to send them over a nationwide "hunger cliff."
The big picture: Burdensome applications and fragmented eligibility systems are adding to the mounting financial pressures of vanishing pandemic-era benefits low-income Americans are now facing.
What we're watching: There are some efforts to lower the bureaucratic hurdles — but there are also new political pressures that worry advocates and analysts.
"We're at a critical emergency moment with regards to the food security of tens of millions of folks across the country," says David Helene, founder and CEO of public benefits tech startup Beam. "And these systems are not going to be able to meet the need at the present moment."
That's in addition to the complexity of the programs and the burden of meeting the documentation requirements, said Helene, whose company streamlines the administration of benefits programs.
Meanwhile: The Biden administration recently announced a slew of initiatives designed to improve delivery of public service programs for low-income families experiencing financial shocks.
Zoom in: Helene says his startup has seen a significant uptick in the number of households citing difficulty affording food among critical needs — an increase that strongly correlates with rising grocery prices.
What they're saying: 55-year-old Gertrudix Alvarez of Cornelius, Oregon tells Axios that over the last year, her family has been forced to choose between buying groceries or paying other essential bills.
Of note: This is an "all-too-common" theme found within the muddled nutrition assistance eligibility picture, according to Ariel Kennan, fellow and research faculty member at the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University.
Context: A 2023 Urban Institute report found that more than four in 10 adults reported one or more enrollment difficulties with SNAP, including trouble determining eligibility, providing required documentation and getting benefits when needed.
State of play: Stacy Dean, Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services at the Agriculture Department, tells Axios that SNAP, which is administered through the agency, reaches about 80% of eligible people in a typical month.
Zoom out: While the ending of SNAP's emergency benefits on their own is "certainly an important story," Dean said, another administration priority is "highlighting the fact that families have these other needs."
The bottom line: "Many times, people in need don't know where to go to ask for help and receive help," Alvarez tells Axios.