For 42 million Americans, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the first line of defense against hunger and the country’s most effective tool for reducing food insecurity. Temporary changes made during the pandemic showed SNAP can do even more to reduce poverty and food hardship.
As the farm bill comes up for reauthorization this month, the legislation represents a critical juncture for food insecurity in the U.S. With more than 80 percent of spending within the bill earmarked for nutrition programs, policymakers have an opportunity to apply lessons learned from the pandemic response to address food insecurity.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the federal government waived many SNAP requirements, including the three-month time limit on benefits for adults aged 18-49 without dependents who face challenges meeting work requirements. The maximum SNAP monthly benefit was also boosted — both through temporary emergency allotments that allowed all households to receive the maximum benefit and by a long overdue upgrade to the Thrifty Food Plan, upon which the formula for SNAP benefits is based. Together, these changes significantly reduced poverty nationwide.
In states that enacted emergency allotments, poverty dropped by a projected 14.1 percent, with Black and Latinx families seeing the largest decline. And despite a significant spike in food hardship in the early months of the pandemic, these and other robust government responses held the line on food insecurity between 2020 and 2021. However, these increased benefits did not last, despite the U.S. entering a period of high food price inflation. All emergency allotments ended by February, leaving many families facing a hunger cliff as benefits sharply decreased.
Today, households with low incomes continue to be at significant risk as food prices remain high. The reauthorization of the farm bill offers policymakers a chance to rely on the evidence to avoid further hardship and increase food security for families with low incomes. Specifically, Congress can avoid adding barriers to accessing SNAP benefits and could increase the value of benefits to bring them in line with the cost of food.
Research indicates that time limits linked to work requirements don’t achieve meaningful increases in hours worked and earnings, but do reduce the number of people receiving benefits. Already, new work requirements were added to SNAP earlier this year that will put older adults at risk of losing assistance. Additional changes have been floated as part of the farm bill. Although these restrictions might save federal dollars in the short run, they can incur higher costs overall, such as increased health care expenditures.
Work requirements aren’t costless either, as they require time and labor costs during implementation. While the federal government is responsible for benefit dollars, states share the cost of program administration. Therefore, states opting for stringent SNAP benefit time limits may not see program savings, could incur additional costs and will likely see increased food insecurity.
The pandemic clearly highlighted the longstanding problem of inadequate SNAP benefits and the effectiveness of increasing them. In 2020, the maximum SNAP benefit per meal did not cover the cost of a moderately priced meal in 96 percent of U.S. counties. With the introduction of the reevaluated Thrifty Food Plan in 2021, which increased the maximum benefit by 21 percent, and a cost-of-living adjustment in October 2022 in response to rampant inflation, that number fell to 78 percent of counties nationwide by the end of 2022 — still not great, but a significant improvement.
Additionally, benefits are not adjusted for differences in food prices in the lower 48 states. Wide variation of food prices makes benefit values highly dependent on where a participant lives, with the gap between the maximum benefit and the local meal cost running as high as $5 per meal (in other words, a local meal costs 83 percent more than the maximum benefit allotment per meal). By increasing the maximum benefit to align with the realities of local food consumption and providing more frequent cost-of-living adjustments to SNAP during periods of high inflation, policymakers can more adequately address food insecurity.
The pandemic showed SNAP can do more to reduce poverty and protect families, and Congress now has the opportunity to build on those lessons in this year’s farm bill and make food insecurity obsolete. A farm bill strategy that prioritizes public health, rather than stigmatizing SNAP participants, could increase food access by removing ineffective requirements such as time-limited benefits, improving SNAP benefit amounts to cover the cost of a meal and providing more frequent cost-of-living adjustments to benefits when inflation is high.
Ultimately, farm bill nutrition program proposals should be evaluated on their potential for reducing food insecurity and increasing food access. After all, that’s the reason programs like SNAP exist.
Elaine Waxman is a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center. Waxman, whose work focuses on food insecurity and nutrition, as well as the food assistance safety net, previously served as vice president of research and nutrition at Feeding America.
Poonam Gupta is a research associate at the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center, where her research focuses on social safety net policy, food insecurity and food access.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.