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Millions could see cuts to food stamps as federal pandemic aid ends

For low-income households enrolled in the program, known as SNAP, the cuts could reduce their benefits by an average $182 per month, according to the USDA

Jaqueline Benitez puts away groceries at her home in Bellflower, Calif., on Feb. 13. Benitez, 21, who works as a preschool teacher, depends on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP, to help pay for food. (Allison Dinner/AP)
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A federal pandemic program that provided extra money to Americans who receive food stamps ended on Wednesday, threatening to complicate the finances of an estimated 31 million low-income people while grocery prices remain high.

For some households, the cuts are expected to reduce their monthly benefits by an average of $182, according to the Agriculture Department, which manages the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP. That means federal aid may only provide families an average of $6 per person each day for food starting Wednesday, less than what many anti-hunger experts say is necessary for a healthy diet.

At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Congress allowed states to issue extra money to food stamp recipients, hoping to ease the financial burden on low-income families who unexpectedly lost their jobs — and suddenly faced a hunger crisis.

Every state offered these emergency allotments until the spring of 2021, when a wave of largely GOP-led states began to cease their participation, arguing that the extra federal financial assistance was wasteful and unnecessary. More than a year later, Congress agreed to terminate the program nationally as part of a broad $1.7 trillion bipartisan deal enacted in December to stave off a government shutdown.

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The end to extra SNAP benefits threatens to bring new hardships for families in the 35 states and territories that had chosen to continue providing emergency aid until Wednesday, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which estimates that roughly 31 million individuals — out of a total 41 million enrolled in SNAP nationwide — could be affected.

For Chante Westfield, a mother of three in Halethorpe, Md., the cut is likely to be steep, cleaving deeply into a benefit that has provided her family a financial lifeline. Since the start of the pandemic, she has counted on an extra $200 in food stamps each month, enough to ease her anxiety and allow her to seek remote work so that she could stay home to tend to her newborn daughter.

But Westfield on Monday — two days before the deadline — said she would now have to space out her purchases of meats, fresh produce and eggs and ration more of her meals.

“It will be about portion control, and more store-brand products,” said Westfield, 28, adding that she expects to make more trips to the local Laurel Advocacy and Referral Services food pantry. She said she is anticipating more spaghetti nights, more chicken Alfredo — things that will have leftovers for the next day.

Big, painful grocery bills are here to stay

The end of the emergency SNAP allotments comes at a precarious time for many low-income families, who have felt the strain of surging prices even as inflation begins to moderate nationally. The costs of housing, gasoline, groceries and other goods remained stubbornly high into January, according to federal indicators released last month, with eggs in particular up 8.5 percent compared with the same period a year prior.

“People are making agonizing choices between whether to pay their rent, pay a medical bill, pay a credit card bill or buy food,” said Vince Hall, the chief government relations officer for Feeding America, a nonprofit network of more than 200 food banks that provided more than 5 billion meals last year.

At the same time, however, the U.S. government has started to wind down a wide array of pandemic aid programs, with plans to terminate its national public health emergency declaration in May. Many of the changes have come amid political pressure from Republicans, who have said such generous programs — and the billions of dollars they cost — worsen inflation and deter people from seeking work.

Some top GOP lawmakers have even eyed SNAP for potential savings as they look for ways to slash the budget by billions of dollars this year. In doing so, Republican leaders have called for tougher work requirements on SNAP recipients, particularly targeting lower-income adults who do not have children. The sum total of their efforts has worried Democrats, who have long felt that the program is critical yet still insufficient to address families’ food needs.

As part of the funding deal enacted in December, congressional lawmakers did agree to make permanent another pandemic initiative: The measure, known as an omnibus, funded free lunches for low-income students even when school is not in session, a move that anti-hunger advocates have heralded as essential.

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But the decision to end emergency SNAP benefits — partly to help pay for the expansion of the school-lunch system — still has sparked widespread unease. Experts say the burden could fall especially hard on seniors who receive the minimum under SNAP as a result of its financial requirements. Some of these older Americans could see their food stamps plummet to $23 a month, according to a December estimate from the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger nonprofit.

In response to rising food costs, the Biden administration has worked to adjust the underlying formula that computes the amount food stamp recipients receive each month. The move ultimately raised the monthly SNAP benefit by an average of $26 per person, according to the USDA.

Even with that increase, however, the agency has still warned in recent weeks that the end of pandemic benefits could mark a “substantial change” for the neediest Americans. This week, a USDA spokesman said in a statement that the SNAP cut would “impact millions of people,” adding that the government is “working closely with states and partners to prepare them for this change.”

The nation’s food banks, meanwhile, have expressed early alarm that they could see a precipitous uptick in demand for help once federal benefits drop. For every meal provided by one of the more than 200 U.S. food banks affiliated with the Feeding America network, SNAP provides nine meals. Take a few of those away, and the food banks can’t provide a sufficient backstop.

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Radha Muthiah, chief executive of the Capital Area Food Bank, said their analysis shows that 330,000 people in the greater Washington area will be affected by the SNAP decrease, with recipients seeing an average of $93 less a month.

“The first thing we did was assess the magnitude of the challenge,” she said. “It costs a little over $4 to make a simple meal. If you divide that through, it’s 23 fewer meals a month. That translates to a week’s worth of food per person, so it’s significant.”

Adding to the difficulty, Muthiah said not everyone is aware the change is happening, and they’re not prepared, so it could be a shock to see nearly $100 missing from their monthly budgets.

“People are stretching their budgets already, given the high rates of inflation,” she said. “And not everyone recovered from the pandemic in the same way — many are lagging.”