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Reversing Trump Policy, Biden Administration Includes Lowest-Income Households in Emergency SNAP Benefits

Update, April 13: We’ve updated this post.

The Agriculture Department (USDA) has announced a new policy that will provide $1 billion a month in additional SNAP benefits to 25 million of the lowest-income SNAP participants, who have been partly or entirely left out of these emergency benefits over the past year due to a Trump Administration policy. Beginning this month, all SNAP households will receive at least $95 a month in emergency allotments. (It may take a few weeks for states to implement the change.) About 40 percent of the households affected by the change include children, 20 percent have elderly members, and 15 percent include someone who has a disability, according to USDA.

Together with the 15 percent across-the-board benefit increase enacted in December and extended by the American Rescue Plan, the new policy will help many of the lowest-income households afford food at a time of severe food hardship.

The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted in March 2020, gave USDA authority to approve state waiver requests for emergency allotments, while limiting the size of a household’s emergency allotment to the maximum SNAP benefit level. The Trump Administration, however, declared that the law limited the size of a household’s total SNAP benefit — that is, its regular benefit plus the emergency allotment — to the maximum SNAP benefit level. Under this interpretation, the 40 percent of SNAP households that already qualified for the maximum benefit didn’t qualify for an emergency allotment.

By definition, the households left out were those with the lowest incomes. Households receive the maximum benefit because they have no disposable income available to purchase food under the SNAP benefit calculation rules. (SNAP households are expected to spend 30 percent of their net income on food; SNAP makes up the difference between the household’s contribution and the maximum benefit). Many other low-income households got only small emergency allotments because their regular benefits were already close to the maximum due to their low disposable income.

To be sure, the emergency allotments have provided economic stimulus and alleviated hardship for the households receiving them. But the Trump Administration’s upside-down approach of largely or entirely excluding households with the lowest incomes was inconsistent with SNAP’s purpose and weakened this measure’s effectiveness.

Community Legal Services of Philadelphia and the law firm of Morgan Lewis sued USDA last year on behalf of low-income Pennsylvanians left out of emergency allotments. The court ruled in their favor last September, but the Trump Administration appealed the ruling and threatened to require Pennsylvania to repay the federal government if the case were reversed in the appeals process. In January, President Biden issued an executive order directing USDA to consider issuing new guidance to provide emergency allotments to the lowest-income households. Last week, USDA ended its appeal in the Pennsylvania case and agreed to issue updated guidance for all states. USDA’s state-by-state estimates of the benefits under the new policy are available here.