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Aid provided through the nation’s largest food assistance program will increase by upwards of 25% beginning in October, the Biden administration announced.
Benefits provided through the nation’s largest food assistance program, which helps tens of millions of Americans cover grocery costs, will increase by upwards of 25% compared to pre-pandemic levels beginning in October, the Biden administration announced on Monday.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture said the average Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit would rise by about $36 per person, per month—that increase excludes additional food aid distributed as part of pandemic relief. The average monthly benefit per person in February 2020, prior to the pandemic, was around $121.
About 42 million, or roughly one-in-eight, Americans depend on SNAP, also known as food stamps. The program is especially important for not only low-income families with children, but also people with disabilities and the elderly.
Areeba Haider, a research associate for the poverty to prosperity program at the Center for American Progress, said that the change to SNAP would amount to the largest increase to benefits in the program's history, outside of temporary growth during recessions.
“This is actually a really important increase,” she said.
Ellen Vollinger, legal director for the Food Research & Action Center, agreed. “It’s a very big change, it’s very significant,” she said.
Vollinger and Haider both pointed out that SNAP recipients commonly run short on benefits before the month is through. This can mean turning to food banks, or family and friends for meals, and as Vollinger noted, “often just going without, going with less.”
Benefits for Communities
For state and local policy makers, the change is notable because it could help alleviate financial pressure on low-income households in their communities. There are also possible economic benefits from millions of people having more to spend on food and other items.
Vollinger cited statistics indicating each dollar of SNAP benefits spent during an economic downturn has a “multiplier effect” that can generate economic activity that is more in the range of $1.50. “The benefits to the economy are really quite striking,” she said.
The change to SNAP stems from an update to what is known as the Thrifty Food Plan, which estimates the cost of groceries a family would need to prepare nutritious food at home. The plan is used as a basis for determining maximum SNAP benefits. USDA said the cost adjustment to the plan marks the first time its purchasing power has been ramped up since it was introduced in 1975.
“To set SNAP families up for success, we need a Thrifty Food Plan that supports current dietary guidance on a budget,” said Stacy Dean, USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. “Too many of our fellow Americans struggle to afford healthy meals. The revised plan is one step toward getting them the support they need to feed their families.”
The farm bill that Congress approved in 2018 with bipartisan support directed USDA to review the plan. And President Biden voiced support for moving the update along in an executive order he issued shortly after taking office in January.
Vollinger explained that many researchers for decades have viewed the Thrifty Food Plan as inadequate for people to afford a basic, healthy diet. “The design has been flawed,” she said.
For example, she said, the model USDA is now revising has included unrealistic and outdated assumptions about the amount of time people have to prepare food, how much they buy in bulk, and the extent people are making food from scratch.
“It’s not really the way Americans are shopping, or living, or cooking,” she said.
Dietary guidelines have also changed over the years and the plan hasn’t kept pace with those either, Vollinger added.
The American Public Human Services Association, a bipartisan group that represents state and local health and human services agencies, sent out an email that said the update to the plan would “have an immediate impact for millions of Americans and signals our nation’s commitment to promoting the well-being of all communities.”
Questions From Republicans
While proponents of boosting SNAP benefits applauded USDA’s move, some Republicans in Congress are raising questions.
The top GOP lawmakers on the Senate and House agriculture committees—Sen. John Boozman of Arkansas, and Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson of Pennsylvania on Friday sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office, asking for the watchdog agency to analyze USDA’s update of the Thrifty Food Plan.
"The complexity of this process, and its likely impacts, create an urgent need for scrutiny, particularly on the heels of significant nutrition-related pandemic spending that has continued without rigorous oversight,” they said in their letter.
“While we expect this process will elicit an increase to the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan—and subsequently monthly SNAP allotments—questions remain as to how the Department has gone about this review and update, including their methodologies, administrative practices, and legal authorities,” the lawmakers added.
Benefit costs for SNAP totaled around $55 billion in fiscal year 2019, or about 1.2% of the $4.4 trillion in federal spending that year. In fiscal 2020, which included the early months of the pandemic, when big segments of the economy cratered, costs jumped to around $74 billion.
Advocates say there’s still more federal lawmakers could do to bolster the program and cut down on hunger.
Democrats in the House and Senate have introduced legislation that would switch the model for calculating benefits to USDA’s more generous Low-Cost Food Plan and would make other changes to the program as well, such as eliminating the cap on a deduction for rent and other living expenses people can claim against their income, which factors into determining benefits.
Haider noted other issues with eligibility requirements and even a restriction on using benefits to buy hot foods, like a rotisserie chicken in a grocery store. Even so, she said, the update to the Thrifty Food Plan “is a really great first step” and something that is “long overdue.”
Bill Lucia is a senior editor for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.