On March 1, millions of households lost emergency benefits that helped put food on the table. For roughly three years, a pandemic-era boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provided emergency allotments to low-income people needing additional food support nationwide, including Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands (USDA). With its expiration, these households could see a monthly reduction of at least $95, with some facing a $250 cut just as the increased cost of living pushes people closer to poverty (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities).
More than 41 million people received SNAP benefits and emergency allotments in 2022 (USDA). The passage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act in 2020 authorized temporary aid to help low-income individuals and families deal with economic hardships during the pandemic. This meant most households didn’t have to choose between eating or paying rent or utilities for the month. Enhanced SNAP benefits kept more than four million people above the poverty line in 2021 and reduced poverty rates among Black and Latine recipients (Urban Institute). With the end of the program, a person’s average SNAP benefit would be $6.10 per day. A dozen eggs now cost $5 in Georgia, thanks to food inflation (Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, WALB). Food banks and pantries are preparing for a spike in patrons now that the emergency allotments have expired (Business Insider).
Email your state legislators to support the Closing the Meal Gap Act.
• Donate to local food banks and pantries like the Buddy Systems, Evanston Community Fridges, and North Brooklyn Mutual Aid, and volunteer with Meals on Wheels.
• Support initiatives like Food Rescue US that distribute surplus food to people who are food insecure.
“This hunger cliff is coming to the vast majority of states, and people will on average, lose about $82 of SNAP benefits a month,” said Ellen Vollinger, SNAP director at the Food Research and Action Center (FRAC) (CBS News). Vollinger says the elderly could be hit hardest by losing additional SNAP benefits. They could see a cut from $281 to $23, the monthly minimum (USDA).
SNAP, the largest federal food assistance program in the United States, provides low-income households access to “more nutritious” foods, supporting families with children, disabled people, older adults, and the working class (CBPP). It’s shown to reduce hunger by supplementing incomes and increasing food-insecure households’ access to food (Brookings). SNAP is not intended to end hunger in the U.S. Instead, the program aims to help supplement the food budget of low-income households until they become self-sufficient, with an emphasis on stretching out every dollar (USDA). The program still is insufficient to fulfill its limited mission, failing to provide individuals and families with the “true cost” of attaining a healthy diet, causing some households to skip meals or sacrifice food quality once benefits run out (Drexel, FRAC).
The average SNAP recipient used about 17% of their monthly benefit on the day of issuance and more than 75% by mid-month, with the remainder nearly running out before the next allotment (USDA). In 2021, 88% of SNAP recipients reported facing some barrier to achieving a healthy diet throughout the month, with affordability cited as the most common reason for household food insecurity (USDA, USDA). Over seven million households were still food insecure despite receiving SNAP benefits, with almost four million including children (American Progress).
This shortcoming is primarily due to the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), which determines a household’s SNAP benefits by calculating the lowest cost to eat a healthy diet on a limited grocery budget. Before 2021, it was last updated in 2006. When the USDA analyzed 2019 household food spending, they realized that the average U.S. household spent 59% more on food than the outdated TFP. The poorest 20% of households, with income below $22,488, spent 27% more (USDA). As a result, they established a law that the USDA must reevaluate TFP every five years, adjusting for food price inflation, and increased SNAP benefits by 21%, a monthly increase of $36.24 per person (USDA). Though overdue, the update didn’t account for the fact that recipients who lack adequate access to markets accepting SNAP or live in food deserts. The analysis overestimated the time available for working-class families for food preparation, overemphasizing foods that take longer to prepare (FRAC, USDA).
Even applying for SNAP benefits is arduous. Eligibility rules are complex, and individuals and families have to jump through burdensome hoops to prove they are poor and “deserve” assistance. Food-insecure individuals are often ineligible to receive SNAP benefits (New York Times). Your household can be disqualified if you make just a little more than the maximum gross monthly and net income limits. Generally, a one-person household could only have a gross monthly income of no more than $1,473 and a net income of $1,133, which puts them under the federal poverty line for individuals,$14,580 (USDA, ASPE). Additionally, having savings or owning a car, even if said vehicle is used to fulfill their employment requirement, are calculated as assets and affect eligibility.
And while the end goal is self-sufficiency, recipients are stuck in a “constant state of poverty” as individuals are often penalized with termination or reduction of SNAP benefits if they make more money, even if it’s through temporarily working precarious, low-wage jobs with “unpredictable working hours, seasonal work, or sporadic overtime hours [that] result in unstable or unpredictable income” (Health Affairs, Drexel). Losing SNAP benefits while trying to work oneself out of poverty keeps low-income households dependent on a deficient program that has nonetheless become a lifeline for millions who would otherwise not be unable to eat.
While the emergency allotments were temporary aid, they showed how insufficient SNAP benefits were before the pandemic (Yahoo). “In other words, the pandemic expansion of SNAP was not just an emergency benefit,” Alice Reznickova, an interdisciplinary scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists, said, “but rather an integral supplement that would have made SNAP work better in the future.”
• In 2021, SNAP emergency allotments kept more than four million people above the poverty line.
• SNAP benefits fail to provide sufficient funds to maintain a healthy diet nor ensure food access to food-insecure individuals.
• Safety net programs, like SNAP, make it difficult for recipients to gain economic mobility while enrolled.