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SNAP Helped Millions After Hurricanes, Highlighting How Many Are Barely Getting By

January 12, 2018 at 12:00 PM

SNAP (formerly food stamps) helped millions put food on the table in the months after the fall hurricanes in Florida, Texas, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) show. Some 3.6 million people received temporary disaster SNAP benefits in October alone. That’s a reminder of how many Americans are barely getting by, and are just one misfortune away from needing help to provide adequate nutrition for their families.

For those with little savings and monthly income just above the poverty level, the sudden loss of work (because, for example, a business closed after a severe storm) can make it hard to afford necessities like food, particularly when they may face expenses due to storm damage or temporary relocation. As we’ve explained, SNAP acts as a first responder after natural disasters, providing critical food assistance to vulnerable households. That can include replacing or supplementing current participants’ benefits as well as providing temporary Disaster SNAP (D-SNAP) benefits to households that didn’t qualify for food assistance before the disaster but have suffered significant loss.

In September, about 660,000 people received D-SNAP benefits, according to the USDA data (which are preliminary and subject to change). That number shot up to 3.6 million in October. D-SNAP benefits are temporary — in Florida and Texas, individuals received two months of food assistance. But the need was significant. In Florida, on some days as many as 50,000 people lined up at a single site to sign up for assistance.

The demand for this short-term, modest help (for example, $504 a month for a family of three) shows how many people live in economically precarious situations and can’t weather a storm that causes an income loss. Based on the latest Census data from 2016, nearly 13 percent of Americans had annual incomes below the poverty level. Another 26 percent were in households with incomes between 100 and 250 percent of the poverty level. At these income levels, a two-parent family with a single child had to try and make ends meet with between $1,610 and $4,025 per month. And many more people have incomes that fluctuate throughout the year and, consequently, experience temporary periods with significantly limited resources.

The substantial need during recent hurricanes is a sobering reminder of the vital importance of a strong safety net. Traditional SNAP and D-SNAP benefits are designed to quickly and effectively respond to need, helping provide resources for basic nutrition to families that have faced personal crisis and, as the numbers show, to whole communities that face economic loss.