BEYOND THE NUMBERS
As policymakers consider additional relief to respond to COVID-19 and the deep economic downturn, boosting SNAP benefits must be part of measures to lessen hardship and help the economy recover.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act of March included much-needed measures to temporarily increase SNAP benefits for many households and let state SNAP agencies temporarily modify procedures. These measures helped states quickly provide SNAP benefits, and without them, hardship likely would have risen even more than it has. But these temporary benefits didn’t help everyone who needs them, and they aren’t enough to help families afford food, given the challenges that COVID-19 and the downturn have presented.
Here are five reasons why the next relief package needs to include an additional boost in SNAP benefits:
Temporary “emergency allotments” didn’t reach the poorest households. Families First included an important provision to let states give SNAP households temporary emergency allotments up to the maximum benefit that a SNAP household can receive. The Agriculture Department (USDA) interpreted the provision as allowing states to issue allotments to raise the benefits of all participating households to the maximum but not to give more to households already receiving the maximum.
That meant that households with very low incomes already receiving the maximum benefit wouldn’t receive any additional benefits. As a result, the lowest-income households, which are about 40 percent of SNAP households and include at least 5 million children, were left out of these benefit increases.
Increasing the SNAP maximum benefit by 15 percent would give a substantial boost to all SNAP households, including those with the lowest incomes, which already struggled before the pandemic, are likely facing increased hardship now, and may have received little other support from relief packages. (For example, millions are at risk of missing out on the economic stimulus payments.)
States will stop providing emergency allotments before low-income households’ need for higher benefits subsides. States can provide emergency allotments as long as both a federal- and state-declared public health emergency continues. The Secretary of Health and Human Services will likely extend the federal emergency through the summer, and many states will continue their emergency declarations while COVID-19 remains a serious public health threat.
Nevertheless, the economic crisis will likely continue for months or even years to come. Low-income households generally experience the harshest impacts of economic downturns, and it often takes longer for the benefits of the recovery to reach them. Extending SNAP relief as long as the economy remains weak will help families put food on the table while their income remains low.
- Elevated food prices and income losses are reducing the reach of SNAP benefits. Given the widespread loss of income, low-income households now have a greater need for help to afford food. Rising food costs are also making it harder to afford food. Benefits were already too low for many households to afford food before the pandemic, evidence suggests, and, given reduced income and these elevated costs, many households will struggle to afford food without an increase in SNAP benefits.
- Families are experiencing hardship that can have lasting impacts. Alarming numbers of households, particularly households of color and lower-income households, are having difficulty affording food, paying rent, and buying other necessities, evidence suggests. These hardships can set households back for decades and have long-term negative impacts on health and well-being, particularly for children and young adults. Most SNAP households combine their cash with SNAP to meet their monthly food needs. Additional SNAP benefits free up available cash, helping those households continue to afford other necessities. Boosting SNAP is a key step to reducing short-term hardship by lessening food insecurity, which can contribute to long-term harm.
- Boosting SNAP will help the economy recover faster. One lesson of the Great Recession of a decade ago was that policymakers erred by providing insufficient fiscal stimulus measures and ending them too early. SNAP benefits are effective stimulus because low-income households spend money quickly, which can in turn generate more economic activity. Boosting SNAP benefits — and maintaining that boost while the economy remains weak — will not only help households weather hardship, but also help the economy recover.