A Big (and Needed) Boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

Aug. 19, 2021 – The Biden administration announced a historic increase to SNAP. Here’s what that means.

This week, the White House announced a big change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or the food stamp program. Following a change to the program’s Thrifty Food Plan that is used to calculate disbursements to individuals and families, SNAP users will see the most substantial permanent increase to their benefits—about a 25% rise over pre-pandemic benefits. Let’s look at some context and details.

An Historic Boost to SNAP

The program is an important system for millions of Americans, about 42 million as of May of this year. SNAP beneficiaries are economically, geographically, and racially diverse, and predominantly live below the poverty line. While most beneficiaries are children, elderly, or living with a disability, most working age SNAP users are employed.

By tinkering with the benefit calculation, “the average SNAP benefit […] will increase by $36.24 per person, per month, or $1.19 per day, for Fiscal Year 2022 beginning on October 1, 2021,” per the U.S. Department of Agriculture, totaling an average monthly benefit of about $160 per person. This is historically high when accounting for the temporary program boosts enacted during economic crises and the pandemic, as well as other changes made to the program over its history:

A fullscreen and interactive version of this graph is available here.

This is a big deal. As mentioned last year on 101PC, SNAP is an incredibly important federal program since food insecurity remains prevalent in the U.S. While SNAP does help pay for food, one of its biggest criticisms is how small the benefits can be. This year, the Urban Institute found:

  1. The maximum (not the average) benefits amount for an individual in 2020 “did not cover the cost of a modestly priced meal in 96 percent of all US counties.” So even those who are receiving the most that SNAP allots still need to cover some of the cost themselves, cut out vital parts of meals, or simply skip meals entirely.
  2. Even with the temporary boost through the CARES Act and other pandemic programs, SNAP still didn’t fully address this “meal gap.”

It’s also worth noting that the 20 counties with the biggest meal gap are about evenly split between urban and rural communities. But with this permanent boost to SNAP, the meal gap will almost certainly shrink or disappear in most of these communities, regardless of their geographies. (Different communities have different needs; the Ag. Department describes the boost will play out in each state here.)

A No-Brainer Change for SNAP

As of May of this year, about 42 million Americans—one out of every 8 people living in the country—and 22 million households rely on SNAP to meet their basic food needs. To say SNAP is a helpful program is an understatement. And in addition to SNAP fulfilling a core responsibility of our government, it’s also a boon to the U.S. economically and regarding public health.

Yet despite how clearly vital and beneficial SNAP is, some members of Congress still believed the program was too generous last year—yeah, last year!—or should have work requirements. (Such requirements are bogus, by the way.) And even after we’ve experienced one of the worst economic downturns in history, they’re still worried despite the apparent need and research supporting this change.

Skepticism among legislators and experts can be healthy. However, this isn’t that—it’s just vocal and empty “concern” that’s crucial for the us-vs.-them, “givers and takers” messaging used to drive a wedge between communities. But I guess better that than considering Lincoln’s own thoughts on this type of thing: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate, and individual capacities.

Although SNAP connects millions of Americans with nutritious food, it doesn’t go far enough in most corners of the U.S. This new and permanent boost, coupled with other changes like the revamped Child Tax Credit, shows we really can improve upon the status quo and enact responsible and moral public policy. It takes an understanding of the issues as well as the fortitude to ignore harmful political posturing.

Weekly pup pic.

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