Some awareness was raised: In 2015, actress Gwyneth Paltrow quit the challenge, amid much ridicule, after running out of food in four days. For real-life beneficiaries, the challenge has been longer-lasting. Many of those enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) haven’t had enough money for food without ending up short for rent or car payments.
So let’s applaud the Biden administration for its multi-front attack on the scourge of food insecurity and hunger. The administration this week announced a 25 percent expansion in SNAP benefits, the largest increase in the program’s history, set to take effect in October. Meanwhile, Census Bureau household survey data reveals that just as the first checks in President Biden’s child tax credit program went out in July, fewer households with children reported issues buying or obtaining adequate food or trouble meeting basic expenses.
Combined, the changes are poised to result in greater food security for millions of U.S. households. “It’s huge, huge, huge,” said Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation. “Biden is taking historic steps toward addressing the poverty and hunger crisis in the United States that long predated the pandemic.”
The pandemic’s impact reinforced some long-standing inequities in our society — and underscored that some problems were rooted in those inequities. When pandemic-relief measures led to a soaring savings rate, for example, it became clear that many poorer Americans lacked money to save, not that they didn’t know how to manage their meager finances or forgot to put money aside.
SNAP benefits offer a demonstration. They are calculated using the Thrifty Food Plan, a formula set decades ago, when few women worked outside the home. The plan presumes both the most economical food choices (such as buying grains or beans in bulk, as opposed to smaller, more prepared quantities) and the least costly prep methods, which might involve hours of work. “We think about food preparation differently now,” says Lauren Bauer, a fellow in economic studies at the Brookings Institution. “We expected people had an infinite amount of time to soak their beans. But [today,] people purchase canned beans.”
Nutrition standards have changed, too, Bauer notes. Recent guidance emphasizes fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and lean meats — all of which are often more expensive than boxed or processed foods.
A decade ago, Walmart executives were talking about how, the evening before monthly benefits would be deposited on SNAP cards, customers would arrive at stores, fill carts with groceries and wait till midnight to check out. “The only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they’ve been waiting for it,” then-Walmart CEO Bill Simon observed in 2010 during the aftermath of the financial crisis.
Biden’s changes are something else entirely. Beginning this fall — just as some pandemic assistance programs are slated to expire — the typical SNAP beneficiary will receive an additional $36 each month, with the average per-person benefits rising from $121 to $157. For a family of four, that’s a $144 monthly increase, a not-insignificant increase.
Meanwhile, the child tax credit is also helping to stabilize many families’ finances. The monthly credits are received by more than 90 percent of American families with children age 17 or younger. Notably, while the Census Bureau’s household survey data indicated a decrease in hunger among families with children, households without children reported no such changes. Moreover, almost half of the households with children told surveyors they spent at least some of the payment on food.
The child tax credit is set to expire in December — and polling shows a majority of Americans oppose extending it (though, no surprise, parents of children under 18 beg to differ). Critics concerned about long-term cost are missing the forest for the trees. Spending now on healthier families will foster potential in kids, who could grow up to earn more, as well as potentially lower demand (and cost) in the heath-care system. It’s also the right thing to do. An extension of the credit in the reconciliation bill should remain intact.
When it comes to hunger, as with much else, money changes everything. Biden, who has presided over the largest expansion in the social safety net since the Great Society, clearly recognizes this. We are all better off for it.