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Biden administration approves largest increase to food assistance benefits in SNAP program history

Benefits will rise by 25 percent on average, an infusion of cash that advocates say better reflects the modern cost of a basic diet

On Aug. 16, the Biden administration announced the largest increase to food assistance benefits in SNAP history. Advocates say it was long overdue. (Video: Chris Vazquez/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The Biden administration has approved the largest increase to food assistance benefits in the history of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a move that will substantially retool the program to provide the targeted assistance advocates have long argued is desperately needed by poor families.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is expected to announce Monday morning that benefit amounts for the program, formerly known as food stamps, will rise an average of 25 percent above pre-pandemic levels. First reported by the New York Times and confirmed by a spokeswoman at the Agriculture Department, average monthly benefits, which were $121 per person before the pandemic, will rise by $36 under the new rules.

The increase is based on an update to the algorithm that governs the Thrifty Food Plan, which tracks the cost of 58 different categories of groceries needed to provide a budget-conscious diet for a family of four.

“Plain and simple, this is totally a game-changing moment,” said Jamie Bussel a senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a philanthropy focused on health. “The changes have enormous potential to reduce, and potentially eliminate, child hunger and poverty in this country. This will reflect much more accurately what food actually costs in communities.”

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In response to the economic downturn and widespread unemployment due to the pandemic, many Americans have relied on coronavirus-relief legislation passed by Congress that temporarily increased unemployment benefits, halted evictions and suspended student loan payments.

This aid represents a dramatic, but largely temporary, expansion of the social safety net — one that many advocates argue should be permanently enshrined. With many of these key provisions set to expire in September, federal lawmakers are under urgent deadlines to decide what policies might endure.

As the pandemic triggered high unemployment and shortages in food banks and pantries around the country, Vilsack was charged with reimagining food assistance programs, which account for over two-thirds of Agriculture Department’s budget. SNAP, WIC (a program for pregnant women, infants and young children), Pandemic-EBT, (a program meant to replace free or subsidized meals for kids now learning online) and school meal programs have all seen temporary expansions.

Anti-hunger experts have long argued the Thrifty Food Plan’s metrics are out of date with the economic realities most struggling households face. They say the plan, formulated in the 1960s, was designed when many American families still had only one working parent, allowing the other parent more time for labor-intensive, but cheap, cooking from scratch.

In the past two decades, more working families are made up of two wage earners or a single-parent, leaving less time for soaking beans and simmering stews. The 2018 Farm Bill mandated a reexamination of the program’s math, and in a January executive order, the Biden administration asked the Agriculture Department to revise the Thrifty Food Plan to better reflect the modern cost of a healthy basic diet.

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During the Trump administration, while coronavirus relief bills increased the number of people receiving the maximum amount of benefits, it did not expand SNAP funding for the 40 percent of recipients who already qualified for the top benefit. In January, Biden signed an executive order allowing states to increase SNAP emergency allotments, allowing an additional 12 million people to receive enhanced benefits.

These shifts represent a dramatic recalibration of the government’s strategy in preventing hunger. “When you look at the USDA data, the SNAP budget went from $60 billion to $90 billion. A third of that 50 percent growth was because 6 million more people became eligible, but two-thirds was Congress increasing the number of people who received the maximum benefit,” said Jerold Mande, an adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Some states are cutting off emergency food-assistance programs and making it harder to qualify

Mande said the timing of the announcement is important as benefits have been tied to emergency declarations. As states rescind their emergency declarations, families are facing their SNAP benefits being lowered to pre-pandemic levels.

Though the changes to SNAP are permanent, they address a pandemic-related surge in hunger in America, when projections, at one point, predicted 50 million people — including 17 million children — would be considered food insecure by the end of 2020. But, advocates say the infusion of funding corrects benefits that fall far short of demonstrated need, a problem they say has existed for at least a decade.

Nearly 90 percent of SNAP recipients report running out of benefits by the end of the month, said Lisa Davis, senior vice president of hunger charity Share Our Strength — a figure that illustrates the disconnect between the program calculations and its recipients’ lived experience.

“This outmoded food plan has limited SNAP’s purchasing power and made unrealistic assumptions about the cost of food, the time it takes to plan and prepare meals and the constraints faced by time-strapped working families,” Davis said. “An updated Thrifty Food Plan would better reflect the way families live today, where working households do not have unlimited hours to prepare food from scratch and modern dietary guidelines advise a wider variety of foods.”

Republican pushback has been swift. In response to the revisions, Rep. Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-Pa.) and Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.) requested more transparency into the calculations that underlie the Agriculture Department update.

In a letter Friday to Comptroller General Gene Dodaro, the Republican leaders asked the Government Accountability Office to conduct an analysis reporting on how the new Thrifty Food Plan metrics were developed. “The complexity of this process, and its likely impacts, create an urgent need for scrutiny, particularly on the heels of significant nutrition-related pandemic spending that has continued without rigorous oversight,” the lawmakers wrote. “Can the department point to recent data that shows increased SNAP benefit allotments lead to consumption of healthier foods?”

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Vilsack has stressed the importance of making healthy food available to low-income Americans, in a March interview with The Washington Post, citing statistics that 60 percent of American adults suffer from one chronic disease, 40 percent from two, and that more than 70 percent of American adults are overweight or obese.

“We’ve got children who are headed toward that type of future,” he said. “This suggests the need for a transformed food and agriculture system.”