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Amid a Deadly Virus and Crippled Economy, One Form of Aid Has Proved Reliable: Food Stamps

Ms. Cintron, the single mother in Florida, hesitated to use a program she associates with dependency. She spent 20 years as a job coach in the Orlando public schools before following her fiancé to Texas and returning after his death. “It was emotionally hard to apply — I’ve always had a job — but I had to do this for my kids,” she said.

But others say SNAP brings independence. Ms. Johnson, the nursing aide who caught the coronavirus, lives with her middle-class parents in The Woodlands, Texas, outside Houston, but does not like to rely on them. “I like doing for myself,” she said.

A SNAP expansion played a major role in the last recession, when a temporary increase in the maximum benefit helped restrain the rise in hunger. But a weak recovery followed and caseloads kept growing for years.

A backlash followed, with some conservatives arguing the program discouraged work. President Trump has spent years trying to cut eligibility and expand work rules, and in February he called the ebbing rolls a hallmark of his success. From 48 million in 2012, the rolls fell to 37 million before the pandemic, mostly because of falling unemployment, but are now slightly higher than when Mr. Trump took office, the Times analysis shows.

To speed enrollment, the Trump administration let states suspend reviews of existing cases and focus on new applications. It also let states enroll people without interviews. Federal officials have now let both forms of latitude lapse, which some states fear will cause delays, especially with expiring unemployment aid likely to increase SNAP usage.

“I’m worried about our ability to process the applications,” said Duke Storen, who runs Virginia’s program.

Mr. Gordon, the Michigan official, said, “I would expect to see growth for a significant period of time.”

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