Editor’s note: This story and title have been updated on August 16, 2021 to reflect new developments.
The Biden administration today announced a 25% increase in food stamp benefits, the largest jump in the history of the program.
By revising nutrition standards last updated in 2006, the administration will increase the average monthly benefits under the program now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to $157, $36 more than pre-pandemic levels.
“Ensuring low-income families have access to a healthy diet helps prevent disease, supports children in the classroom, reduces health care costs, and more,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release. “And the additional money families will spend on groceries helps grow the food economy, creating thousands of new jobs along the way.”
American anti-hunger advocates have fought for years to increase food benefit amounts, extend aid to more people and make it simpler to apply to federal food and nutrition programs.
The pandemic exposed millions to food hardship, prompting advocates to lobby to make permanent several emergency COVID-19 relief increases that helped feed an average of 42 million people each month from April 2020 to 2021 at a cost of more than $106 billion.
In addition to the increase in SNAP benefit amounts the Biden administration announced today, which will raise the cost of the program by about $20 billion a year, advocates are pushing for the adoption of a new summer meals program for children.
But while that safety net enjoyed some degree of bipartisan support during the pandemic, several emergency provisions also have attracted criticism from Republican lawmakers and conservative economists who say they discourage work.
Advocates who argue that low-income families need more food aid fail to account for the overlapping, trillion-dollar patchwork of welfare programs already available to them, said Robert Rector, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who supported some temporary SNAP expansions early in the pandemic.
Already, at least six states—which have broad flexibility in how they administer federal food and nutrition programs—have begun to reduce food assistance again. That pivot concerns advocates who imagined a new consensus on hunger had emerged after the crisis.
“It would be a shame if we didn’t learn anything from the pandemic about the needs of low-income people,” said Ed Bolen, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which supports the expansion of the food safety net. “Because I think it became very apparent how fragile lots of folks’ lives are … [and] there’s a real chance to strengthen nutrition programs.”
The momentum for expanding America’s food safety net represents a sharp reversal from even 18 months ago. The Department of Agriculture repeatedly moved to tighten SNAP eligibility under the administration of former President Donald Trump, attempting to reinstitute work requirements in many states and preventing families from automatically qualifying for nutrition benefits through participation in other safety net programs.
But priorities shifted with the onslaught of the pandemic when, for a period last summer, more than 1 in 10 adults surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau reported that their household “sometimes or often” didn’t have enough to eat. The surge in hunger upended a decade of consistent progress on food insecurity, which in 2019 fell to its lowest point since measurement began in the 1990s.
In response, Congress and the Department of Agriculture gradually expanded the scope and depth of federal food assistance, boosting benefits and easing administrative rules that made it difficult for state agencies to serve clients in a locked-down environment. The federal government suspended, until the end of the public health emergency, a rule that limits unemployed, childless adults to three months of assistance. Child nutrition programs, such as school lunch and community summer meals programs, gained the flexibility to deliver meals to homes or distribute brown bags.
Most significantly, families participating in SNAP—by far the country’s largest anti-hunger program—saw average assistance increase by roughly three-quarters since the start of the pandemic, thanks to a combination of emergency supplementary benefits and a 15%, across-the-board boost due to expire in September. The new permanent benefit increase goes into effect in October.
Under a new program called Pandemic EBT, more than 8.4 million families also received extra aid to cover the meals their children would usually eat in school cafeterias. The Biden administration upped those payments in January, from $5.86 per child per day to almost $7. That program will remain available for the duration of the public health emergency, extending into next summer.
“The SNAP benefit has never been enough to get folks through the entire month anyways,” said Sue Berkowitz, the director of South Carolina Appleseed, a left-leaning advocacy group. “And so, if there was any upside in the pandemic, it was knowing that while families were struggling with all these other things … they at least had additional benefits so they could be in a better place to purchase food.”
Benefits Already Inadequate
For a family of five, like Shauna Gray’s, the additional benefits have indeed helped: Her family’s SNAP benefits jumped from $450 per month in February 2020 to $600 per month a year later. The 42-year-old mother of three worked in the restaurant industry before school shutdowns forced her to stay home with her children, one of whom is autistic. Even before losing her job, Gray used to visit a food pantry twice a month to cover the gaps in her grocery budget.
But thanks to the extra assistance, Gray said, she has been able to afford all her groceries herself. She has shopped near her Washington, D.C., home instead of driving to multiple suburban big-box stores in search of lower prices. She has also “splurged,” she said, on higher-quality fruit snacks and juice boxes for her children.
“The cost of everything has gone up, even just the simple staples—things like eggs and milk,” Gray said. “That extra little bit was completely transformational.”
An extensive body of academic research shows that SNAP reduces food insecurity and poverty, and may also improve some health outcomes, among its participants.
One recent report, last updated by the left-leaning Urban Institute think tank in July, found that current benefit levels are insufficient to cover the cost of the government’s own model meal program in almost every county in the United States, with more severe shortfalls in high-cost areas.
“The challenges COVID unearthed were not new challenges,” said Robert Campbell, the managing director of policy at the national food bank network Feeding America.
Expanding food assistance over the past year was generally nonpartisan, said Tracy Roof, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond. All 50 states initially opted-in to both Pandemic EBT and extra food assistance, eager to capture federal dollars and address “the lines at food banks,” Roof said.
As with other safety net programs, however, conservative economists and lawmakers have grown increasingly concerned about the effects that government assistance may have on both federal spending and the labor market.
Six red states—Arkansas, Florida, Idaho, Montana and North and South Dakota—have voluntarily ended extra benefits in recent months. Proposed legislation in Missouri would tighten work requirements in the food stamp program, a move intended to screen out participants who “can work but won’t,” said the bill’s sponsor, GOP state Sen. Rick Brattin, in an emailed statement.
Any increase in SNAP assistance creates a disincentive to work, argued Angela Rachidi, a senior fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, because households no longer need that income to cover their expenses.
“I do think that, similar to the [unemployment insurance] expansion, many states now are rolling back [SNAP], because they're concerned about employers not being able to find enough employees,” Rachidi said. “Those SNAP dollars are basically the same as [unemployment insurance] dollars, in the sense that if they can replace the need to work, people are going to be less likely to seek out employment.”
Bipartisan consensus may prove easier to find on issues such as program administration, Rachidi said, where Republicans support temporary, pandemic-era tweaks that reduced SNAP’s overhead costs. Some states adopted new technology and procedures to help certify applicants over the phone, for instance.
Rachidi also sees potential for a program like Pandemic EBT to permanently help address child hunger over the summer—a recent Biden administration proposal. Similar programs already had been piloted pre-pandemic in several states, including Michigan and Texas, and a 2014 evaluation concluded that they reduced extreme hunger.
The permanent increase in benefit amounts that the Biden administration announced today does not require congressional approval. Lawmakers in 2018 authorized the Department of Agriculture to revisit the mathematical model it uses to set benefits.
A panel of researchers convened by the National Academies in 2012 identified a range of factors that model fails to account for, from a household’s ability to cook from-scratch meals to regional differences in food prices. The Biden administration has called it “outdated.”
"It’s an important step in the right direction," Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an economist and the director of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University, said of today’s announcement. "The fact that it’s so sizable to me highlights how inadequate this benefit has been for years and decades."