Details on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and its place in the next stimulus bill.
Congress still hasn’t passed another economic stimulus package despite the desperate need for one. Each Friday until they do, I’ll be covering one possible component of a future stimulus bill and explain why it’s needed.
Last week, we covered the Postal Service and its place in a future stimulus package. Since then, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called back the House of Reps to address the decline in the USPS’ operations. Plus, Postmaster General Louis DeJoy said he’ll halt future changes to the service, though he also said he won’t undo those that were already implemented.
This week’s topic: the supplemental nutrition assistance program and its place in the stimulus package. Let’s take a look at the program’s pre-pandemic status, why it’s importance has only grown this year, and what’s on the table for the next stimulus package.
SNAP and food insecurity before the pandemic
The supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) has been around since 1964, when Congress passed the Food Stamp Act. Since then, it has grown to cover millions of low-income and non-working Americans who otherwise wouldn’t have access to food.
According to the USDA, 35.7 million people used SNAP benefits in 2019 with an average disbursement of $129 per month. About 80% of SNAP users live below the poverty line, and the program also disproportionately assists people of color.
SNAP is very much needed. Food insecurity—or a lack of consistent access to food—was a reality for 11% of American households in 2018, the most recent year with available data, or about 37.2 million people. It’s been decreasing each year since a peak in 2011, when 14.9 percent of U.S. households experienced it.
Food insecurity doesn’t affect everyone equally. It’s more prevalent among households below the poverty line, those headed by a single mother, and minority households. It is also not strictly a ‘city problem:’ Rural households experienced food insecurity at roughly the same proportion as urban ones.
There’s a significant gap between SNAP disbursements and the cost of food for participating households and individuals. In 2018, the average payout per meal for an individual using SNAP was around $1.40, according to the Center for Budget and Public Policy. That same year, the average cost of a meal per person was over twice as expensive. (Feeding America has a great resource in which you can see how food insecurity differs among the 50 states, their counties, and their zip codes.)
SNAP is generally favored among policy experts and economists. Although it’s a government subsidy program, it doesn’t interfere in the market. Instead, it helps millions of people participate in the economy by purchasing food; it’s an economic stimulus.
SNAP is also an efficient government program. Since 1969, administrative costs have made up less than 10% of the program’s overall cost almost every year. In other words, at least 90% of SNAP’s budget has been spent on the actual payout to users rather in almost every year it’s been operating. It’s not a wasteful program.
Historically, the program is a good indicator of the economy. Though SNAP participation and unemployment don’t mirror one another, you can still see how the former’s increases and decreases are responsive to spikes in unemployment.
SNAP and the pandemic-recession
Here’s a real time example of this relationship: SNAP participation has spiked since the pandemic hit the U.S. In March, 37.1 million people participated in the program. In April, that number climbed to almost 43.0 million, a 15.8% increase.
The nature of this particular recession—that it’s also a public health crisis—is important. A quarter SNAP participants are elderly or live with a disability and another 40% are children. So, most participants are more susceptible to the virus or are dependent on others to support their needs.
The rest of SNAP users, about a third, are non-elderly adults with no disability. While this means most SNAP users aren’t expected to work, that leaves a good chunk that are employed, looking for work, or take care of other members of their households. Those with jobs are more likely to work in industries like service, sales, transportation, production, and manufacturing …most of which have been hit hard by the pandemic and recession.
This can mean two things. First, those already using SNAP with jobs before the pandemic were a bit more likely to become unemployed than the general U.S. workforce. These are individuals and households that already had to decide between paying rent or buying food before things took a turn for the worse.
Second, we can expect SNAP usage to keep climbing. Weekly unemployment claims remain stubbornly high, and some of the industries that are popular among current SNAP users continue to struggle. The strain on SNAP will very likely dovetail with the strain on unemployment insurance and other human services.
There are some other things to keep in mind right now. For instance, SNAP has a measurable impact on health care costs for low-income individuals and families. SNAP users on average spend $1,400 less per year on health care than low-income individuals not participating in the program. This is especially important when considering COVID-19’s strain on a patient’s health care budget and on our entire health care system.
Additionally, food insecurity has increased over the past several months thanks in part to its relationship with unemployment. In March and April, Feeding America projected significant increases in food insecure people depending on how well the job market performed by the end of the year, with potentially 17 million more people becoming food insecure.
As of now, we’re careening toward this projection, with the Urban Institute finding one out of every six adults in the U.S. experienced food insecurity in May. Separately, the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey found food insecurity (“food scarcity”) has been inching up since early June.
Clearly, SNAP’s importance is only growing as the pandemic and recession remain factors. Millions more have come to rely on the program this spring. Plus, it’s difficult to argue the trend will disappear shortly when revisiting the spike in SNAP users following the Great Recession. (Above.) That increase lasted for years.
SNAP needs a boost; Congress is torn over doing so
Arguably, SNAP needed a boost in some sense before the pandemic. The average amount given to participants is paltry compared to the cost of food. This need hasn’t changed. What’s more, overall access to SNAP should be expanded to meet demand.
There was some good news back in the spring: A provision in the CARES Act gave states the option to increase the payout to SNAP users. The provision also offered states flexibility in certification requirements for SNAP users, though this looks to be in jeopardy.
Increases to the benefits per person is funded through an extra $2 billion per month in spending by the USDA on the program. Most states have exercised this option, allowing them to meet the growing need for the program. Still, food insecurity has remained higher than before the pandemic, as noted earlier.
In May, the House passed the HEROES Act to serve as the next stimulus bill. It included its own provision to increase SNAP benefits by 15% across the board, meaning an extra $25 a month per person. Groups like Feeding America strongly support this.
Congressional Democrats have been using this bill as their starting point for negotiations with Republicans, who have their much smaller HEALS Act. (There’s roughly a $2 trillion difference in spending between the two.) The HEALS Act did not have any boost or improvement for SNAP included in its original language.
There hasn’t been much movement on this front. Democrats have maintained their 15% increase from the HEROES Act, while Republicans generally haven’t found this favorable. Notably, a Republican senator from Kansas has voiced support for this measure. However, this was prior to the negotiations going on hiatus.
Frankly, who knows.
The need for boosting SNAP is obvious; it would provide better support to more Americans and stimulate local economies. The HEROES Act’s increase to SNAP benefits, though substantial, isn’t exactly expensive ($35 billion, or about 1% of the HEROES Act’s entire price tag), and SNAP has a proven track record. However, Congress doesn’t always operate rationally. If the institution did, the stimulus negotiations would have started and concluded weeks ago.
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- The USDA abbreviated the history of federally-sponsored food assistance programs in the U.S.
- The Food Research and Action Center explains the benefits of SNAP (more concisely than I do here).
- The National Conference of State Legislatures has a state-by-state analysis of SNAP work requirements.
- CBPP explains why stricter work requirements don’t help SNAP users.