Why thousands of low-income Utahns may have even less income in March

That extra pandemic aid for food stamps and rent is about to disappear.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) A worker at the food pantry at Crossroads Urban Center in Salt Lake City, as seen in June. Utah officials said Friday that federal pandemic emergency assistance with food and rent will both be phased out in March 2023.

Emergency aid that helped thousands of struggling Utahns with food and rent through the COVID-19 pandemic is about to go away.

The state Department of Workforce Services confirmed Friday it would halt a pandemic-related boost in federal food stamp benefits next month and, after Sunday, the agency no longer will accept applications for emergency help with rent and utility costs.

Congress approved both programs as part of a series of trillion-dollar relief measures passed during the public health emergency spawned by COVID-19, beginning in 2020.

Utah first announced in early January its intent to close the programs as they sunset at the federal level.

“We have always known these programs would be temporary,” Nate McDonald, deputy director of the Department of Workforce Services, said at the time. “Fortunately, Utah’s economy has thousands of job opportunities for those who are looking.”

Starting in March, roughly 74,000 Utah households that had been getting an extra $175 to $200 a month in emergency aid under the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, or SNAP, will stop receiving that stipend, the department said, although their eligibility for regular benefits will continue.

Applications for Emergency Rental Assistance, passed as part of the American Rescue Plan, won’t be accepted after Feb. 5 at midnight. State officials said they will keep processing applications filed before that date on a first-come, first-served basis until the federal money runs out, likely sometime near the end of March.

Utah got a total of $344 million in federal rent assistance through the rescue plan. As of the end of last year, state officials had handled more than 97,000 applications for the aid and paid out $287 million on behalf of residents who were eligible.

A recent analysis by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts found that of nearly $5.2 trillion devoted by the U.S. government to its response to COVID-19, a sixth of that went to states to address the health emergency and to spur their economic recoveries.

Utah’s total share of relief money has topped $27.1 billion between the three biggest pandemic relief measures passed by Congress in 2020 and 2021, according to a May report prepared for state lawmakers.

Federal increases in unemployment assistance amid the pandemic — adding up to $300 weekly to jobless payments — ended in September 2021 after governors in 26 states — including Utah’s Gov. Spencer Cox — began withdrawing from the program out of concerns it was distorting labor markets as the state’s economy was starting to recover.

As of December, Utah’s jobless rate hovered at about 2.2% after dipping to 2% over the previous year, one of the lowest in the country. Nationally, the unemployment rate was 3.5%.

The Department of Workforce Services noted that Cox’s latest proposed budget — now before the Utah Legislature — set aside $150 million for housing assistance, including aid for those experiencing homelessness and those seeking to buy their first home. The Republican governor is also asking lawmakers to allocate $800,000 in state cash for food pantries in Utah in light of rising food costs.

The department, meanwhile, is steering Utahns who may be in need to long-standing programs that can help them with heating and water bills, job training and food assistance.